Once upon a time the American right led the world when it came to rethinking government; now it is an intellectual pygmy. The House Republicans could not even get their budget sums right, so the vote had to be delayed. A desire to curb Leviathan is admirable, but the tea-partiers live in a fantasy world in which the deficit can be reduced without any tax increases: even Mr Obama’s attempts to remove loopholes in the tax code drive the zealots into paroxysms of outrage.
Because the Republican Party’s electoral strategy amounts to identifying the US government as “large” on one hand, while positioning themselves as “opposed” on the other, there is something irresistible about watching when they succeed at big government.
“Big government” is actually redundant. To the extent that we have government in the world today, it is going to be big -- and grow bigger. We can debate what kind of big government it will be -- what it does and where it does more of it -- but it’s not going to become smaller. No government limits its size or tempers its ambitions, insofar as a potential remains. Republican administrations are proof enough of this in and of themselves.
To advocate smaller government is in fact to pursue a course identical to every politician: to reduce or eliminate the programs you don’t like while expanding the ones you do. It is in this way that governments grow larger over time, not smaller, irrespective of ideology.
One of the advantages of a socialist perspective is that it presumes this to be the case: it does not pretend that big government becomes smaller by putting individuals philosophically opposed to big government on its payroll. Consequently, it assumes that how the government expands, who it helps and who it hurts, is the meaningful question, insofar as governments in their current form exist.
Since long before the time of Karl Marx, socialists have thought seriously about the possibilities for getting rid of government altogether, since the whole business about making it smaller is truly utopian. Even Marx conceived the evolution of socialism as culminating in communism, which he defined as a stateless society. That is certainly ideal, since it implies some kind of "self-government" which encompasses social and economic pursuits. But presently we are a long way from it -- and in the meantime government continues to expand.
The wrangling over a debt deal in Washington this week revolved not around questions of big or small government, but which parts of an ever-expanding government deserve to be curbed. In fact, it is the same debate that has gone on ever since the US government got into the business of fielding concerns incidental to business -- like public health, for example. Cuts invariably fall on those least able to influence their government: people who are either too poor, too busy working, or too few in number to make an impact politically. Since most of us fall into one or more of these categories, the cuts fall on people like you and me.
The Tea Partiers are an interesting case of ordinary people organized by much wealthier people around this idea that government is too big; it is too “socialist.” Again, socialism as a tradition was never meant to describe “big government.” Socialists presumed modern governments were big; they distinguished themselves by insisting that government work more actively on behalf of working people and the poor, since every government already works actively on behalf of the rich. (The last point is universally true, and forms the animating inspiration behind “government” in the first place.)
A good question to ask when government becomes smaller is “Have my burdens become larger?” This might include a rise in the retirement age, a hike in public transit fares, or the now prevalent expectation amongst young people that Social Security will someday cease to exist. These are all examples of areas where the US government, which is indeed big, has in the past made life easier for ordinary people rather than making it more onerous.
Tea Party claims notwithstanding, we can rest assured that big government will carry on unabated; and by one means or another it will always assist the rich. The only question is whether you can honestly count yourself in that category.