America is bedeviled by misguided political generals not merely fighting the last war, but endlessly fighting our first war. Every act of government, and every attempt to fund government, whether federal, state, or local, is greeted with a “patriotic” opposition to “tyranny,” even though our own Founding Fathers not only saw a need to create a strong federal government, but also viewed state and local governments as vehicles for, rather than threats to, our individual liberties.
More importantly, we have resoundingly won our first war: Americans are more free today than they have been at any previous moment in American history (except in one ironic sense mentioned below). Not only have we extended the original grant of liberty won in the American Revolution to the vast majority who were excluded from it at the time (African Americans, women, Native Americans, and, to varying degrees, other non-white or non-propertied or non-protestant people), but even propertied, protestant white males are more free today than they have ever been before. There are fewer legal and actual constraints on our freedoms of belief, expression, religion, and action than ever before. There are more, and more vigilant, protections of our civil liberties. And there is more access to a host of liberating educational, informational, recreational, and organizational tools than our ancestors could ever have dreamed of.
To the extent that our liberty is currently threatened, it is threatened most by those on the far right who claim to be defending it. There are two forms of “big government,” that which encroaches upon the constitutional protections of our liberty and that which acts as a vehicle of our collective will without encroaching on our constitutionally protected liberties. Ironically, those who shout “liberty!” the loudest tend to support the former type of big government and attack the latter type, justifying this inversion of priorities (as it is always justified, in all times and places) with the imperative of preserving our domestic tranquility and national security. Equally ironically, it is the latter form of “big government,” when implemented wisely, that is most effective not only at facilitating our collective welfare, but also at maintaining our domestic tranquility and national security in the long run.
But more than our “liberty,” it is our well-being that is currently under attack. We rate abysmally in comparison to other developed nations on measures such as poverty, crime, percentage and absolute number of people incarcerated (by which measure we are literally the most unfree people in the world), infant mortality, educational achievement, and access to health care, to name a few. The primary reason for this comprehensive failure of The United States government effectively to “promote the general welfare” (a principal purpose of our government identified in the preamble of the United States Constitution) is the degree of success of the blind ideological opposition to the use of government to accomplish that task, one completely unmatched in other developed nations.
Rather than continuing to fight the ancient war we have long since won, maybe it is time to start fighting the current battles we are so tragically losing.
To be sure, this opposition to the growth and use of government for our collective welfare has been only marginally successful, though with the devastating effects listed above. Our federal government has grown, by necessity, to deal with the challenges of managing a technologically advanced industrial society in the modern era. But an honest survey of the impact of this growth in size of our federal government is that, not only has it done much to increase the health, welfare, and prosperity of American citizens, but it has also augmented rather than curtailed our individual liberties. Tyranny is not a function of how “big” a government is, but rather of how well or poorly its constitutional and democratic mechanisms function.
This is not to say that there are not real issues involving how best to balance and articulate government, markets, and other social institutional modalities in order to achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness in the provision of necessary and desired services. But those are issues that require the finely honed tools of informed analysis applied to reliably derived data, rather than the sledge-hammer of intransigent false certainties. The tyranny that threatens us is not the tyranny of a large government that imperfectly addresses the needs of a modern society, but rather the tyranny of highly motivated ignorance and irrationality constantly trying to undermine that government as our agent, and augment it as our overlord, imposing horrifying costs and dangers on all of us in the process