I noticed this trackback to the last post. It proves my point about the general fuzzy-headedness of the “limited government” argument. Even though I specifically (and clearly, I think) wrote that government must be restricted from abusing civil liberties, the blogger wrote,
Does Ms. O’Brien really believe that there shouldn’t be any limits on the will of the people ? If she does, then we’ve got to toss out most of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, because that’s precisely what they do.
I wonder sometimes if these meatheads cannot grasp that, ultimately, “the government” and “the people” are the same thing. In the U.S. the government is an instrument by which We, the People, govern ourselves. The Constitution provides the basic parameters, structures, and divisions of authority of that government. The Bill of Rights enumerates which things the government does not have the power to do, meaning that no government official or political faction can use government to do those enumerated things.
And I think that’s grand. But libertarians want to deprive people of the ability to use government in ways that don’t have a dadblamed thing to do with civil liberties, and which in fact fall under the aegis of matters for which the Constitution was purposed —
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
If We, the People, want to promote the general Welfare by initiating taxpayer funded universal health care, for example, ain’t nothin’ in the Constitution that says we can’t have it. People opposed to it can argue about why they think universal health care is not a good use of taxpayer dollars, and then the voters can decide which way they want to go. But when such a program is nixied purely on some ideological dogmas about “big government,” that’s essentially an argument against republican government, and against democracy itself. It’s an argument that says people may not govern themselves, and it’s a violation of the principles on which this nation was founded.
The blogger I’m snarking about is the one who wants to “toss out most of the Constitution” and replace it with an antigovernment ideology.
It isn’t the size of government that makes it oppressive. I provided an example from history in the post below — in the very decade (the 1870s) that government was “smallest” and least intrusive into matters of business, markets, securities, etc., it was opening peoples’ mail to be sure they weren’t using the postal system to provide information on birth control.
Some years later federal courts ruled that Comstock Law agents could not interfere with dissemination of birth control information and devices. To many at the time, the courts’ rulings were an example of “big government.” Would the libertarians reduce the power of government to protect the civil liberties of people?
The knee-jerk attitude that government is always bad, and “big” government is worse, is not based on either reason or the Constitution.
The simple fact is that people oppress each other. They do this with or without government. Sometimes powerful political factions do use government as an instrument of oppression, but throughout our history government has also been the tool used by citizens to gain relief from oppression.
I say that reducing the size and power of government does not reduce oppression, because oppression takes place by means other than government. Those laissez-faire businessmen of the 1870s oppressed their workers outrageously, for example. Many of the inhuman outrages that were common then are rare today — because of government. We, the People, decided workers should have some protections. Labor unions were behind much of the political organization that brought about the Department of Labor and legislation protecting workers, but labor unions by themselves weren’t having a whole lot of success at protecting workers before that.
I’m old enough to know that much of the hysteria over “big government” that arose after World War II came about because government acted to protect the rights of African Americans and other oppressed minorities. The racist bigots who jeered at the “Little Rock Nine,” for example, thought that “big government” was oppressing them. The Governor of Arkansas had wanted to use National Guard to keep African Americans out of the public high school. A federal judge issued an injunction against this. When Little Rock police feared they could not protect the Nine from mob violence, President Eisenhower sent 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students from the mob. Eisenhower also federalized the Arkansas Guard, taking it away from control of the Governor. (Note that Eisenhower acted after the mayor of Little Rock asked for help.)
For years after that, white bigots complained about those armed troops in the streets of Little Rock and whined about how their “rights” were being infringed by “big government.” They were talking about their “rights” to prevent nine teenagers from going to school because of their skin color. They were talking about their “rights” to form a mob and tear nine young people to pieces because of their skin color.
Libertarians want to protect those “rights.” They want to deprive the federal government of the power to protect the civil liberties of citizens.
I’m not saying that all libertarians are bigots. I’m saying they haven’t thought it all through. They see “big government” and think “oppression,” and that’s that. But whether government is “big” or “little” is not the issue; the issue is whether government functions within the parameters of the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, or whether it doesn’t. The issue is whether our government remains an instrument for self-government as it was intended, or whether it doesn’t.
Update: I’m closing comments on this post, as we’re starting to get an infestation of commenters who don’t know they should be polite to the hostess.