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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Does Size Matter?

Throughout modern politics, partisans have engaged in a false fight over big government vs small government. We hear this big v. small debate all the time and no doubt it’ll be a constant theme as we head deeper into the 2004 election season. George W. Bush is already throwing the phrase around.

A look back in time provides a great example of the pointlessness of the rhetoric surrounding this ongoing debate. In an editorial published not long after 9/11, Sen. Charles Schumer attempted to make the case that a return to "big government" is the only way to confront the challenges that lie ahead for our nation post September 11th.

First, let me note that big government is one of those terms, like "liberal" for example, that is recklessly slung about to the point that no one really knows what it means. Does big government mean 1) too many federal employees/officials, 2) too many federal agencies/programs, or 3) too much
spending by the federal government?

For an illustrative example of the ambiguous nature of the phrase, Sen. Schumer noted that President Clinton did more "shrinking [of the federal government] than any other President." This statement is partially true. But, it reflects the minimal value of this ambiguous rhetoric no matter who's using it.

It is true that President Clinton did reduce the size of government. However, it is also true that the federal government spent a lot of money during that time period. Much of it on the military. As Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, then chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the time and then Defense Secretary Cohen noted, it was President Clinton's "fiscal policy that allowed, and his pen that signed, the largest increase in military spending in some 15 years -- historic investment in the next generation of tools and technologies, and the largest increase in military pay and benefits in a generation." Now that our troops are spread across the globe and we are still trying to track down Bin Laden and other shadowy foes, I for one am glad we spent that money and made that investment in America. So, did the government get smaller because we cut its size or bigger because we spent more money?

By utilizing a rhetorically empty phrase like big government Sen. Schumer - and others like Bush, Limbaugh, etc. who recklessly toss it around - does nothing to advance the real discussion that should be taking place. Instead, rhetoric like this sparks more needless race to the bottom debates on the size of government as opposed to the real issues of how government is run and what exactly is happening in government. Case in point is the right-wing tabloidesqe National Review’s piece published the very next day entitled, “Is Chuck Schumer on Crack?” Typically, that piece contained no real discussion on the actual issues, but plenty of personal animus for Schumer and a never ending spew of useless rhetoric. Partisan ideologues get a kick out of this type of exchange, but it does nothing to help our national debate or benefit Americans.

Of course the empty rhetorical question of big v small government is really irrelevant. Government is one area of human existence where size doesn't matter. The important point isn’t whether government is big or small, the real question is whether government is working efficiently and positively impacting the people who permit it to exist: us, the American citizen.

Much of the rhetoric is driven by people who claim to love America, but consistently deride our form of government. At its core, their attack is based on a false claim on what government is. They claim government is some person-less machine that runs every aspect of our lives. Obviously that is false.

Government is people. If everyone who worked in government walked off the job, government would no longer exist. Government is not a machine, rather it is people getting together to make decisions about collective responsibility and how to best deal with needs and issues that impact us as individual citizens, but are impractical for us to address in our individual capacity. Snowplowing is an example. Instead of all of us taking turns shoveling our neighborhood streets, we pitch in and buy a big plow and pay someone to come to our streets to take care of the problem.

Homeland Security is another prime example. President Bush has spent millions of tax dollars to produce and promote the color coded terror system. Yet, firefighters and other first responders are still shortchanged on proper equipment. Equipment they desperately need to protect us better then we could protect ourselves. The point is that collective money must be spent on many important services that we need, but can't afford to effectively provide for ourselves.

JFK himself summed it up as follows:

“I know that there are those who want to turn everything over to the government. I don't at all. I want the individuals to meet their responsibilities. And I want the states to meet their responsibilities. But I think there is also a national responsibility. The argument has been used against every piece of social legislation in the last twenty-five years. The people of the United States individually could not have developed the Tennessee Valley; collectively they could have. A cotton farmer in Georgia or a peanut farmer or a dairy farmer in Wisconsin and Minnesota, he cannot protect himself against the forces of supply and demand in the market place; but working together in effective governmental programs he can do so. Seventeen million Americans, who live over sixty-five on an average Social Security check of about seventy-eight dollars a month, they're not able to sustain themselves individually, but they can sustain themselves through the social security system. I don't believe in big government, but I believe in effective governmental action. And I think that's the only way that the United States is going to maintain its freedom”

Indeed, those who attack every single government program attack freedom itself. We need to be organized to strive towards the twin aims of our republic: national defense and domestic tranquility. That’s all government is, citizens coming together to work toward common goals. To get there, we don’t need big government or small government - just good government.

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