Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Liberals and their Government

Towards the end of the Conservative love affair with G.W. Bush came the common refrain that Bush was actually a closet liberal in his big government spending ways.

Whilst government is often a critical element of many liberal policies in ensuring education, health care, and a social safety net, what I object to is the idea held by the right/large elements of the press that Liberals think increased government spending is an intrinsic good in itself. That just making something a part of the Government books is a benefit to society regardless of the policy outcome. But this is simply not true. Liberal policy arguments never make government spending a positive value in and of itself, instead it is usually seen as the only viable way in which some services can be delivered in cases of market absence (defence) or regular failure (education).

As such, it’s nice to see some of the bigger left wing voices actually talking about the issue:

Kevin Drum:

I am, oddly enough, not really in favor of vastly increased funding for other social programs. Some increased funding is OK, but it should be kept under pretty strict scrutiny — and not just on the generic grounds that all spending ought to be monitored carefully to make sure it’s effective and pruned away when it’s not.

Here’s why. I’m obviously more open to high government spending than most conservatives, but even liberals think there’s a limit to how much of the economy ought to be under government control

Matthew Yglesias:

Nobody on the left ever really talks about the issue of exactly how big we can envision big government getting down the road… Markets, doing their work, will make those sectors more and more efficient leading them to shrink as a share of the overall economic pie. What will be left is big government. Or, rather, bigger and bigger government. Teaching kids. Taking care of the elderly. Patrolling the streets. Making the SUPERTRAINS run on time. And it’s going to be fine.
Which isn’t to say we should crank spending up to 93 percent of GDP next year. .

Unfortunately both Drum and Yglesias advocate increased government spending, but at least they are beginning to open up the debate on just what Liberals, now that we are in power in America and here in Australia really want to do, and what government spending is needed to facilitate that. Because as you can see in both arguments listed above, though increased government spending is called for, it is always for a specific purpose, rather than anything intrinsic in its own benefit (though Yglesias somewhat defends such thoughts)

But at least the debate is beginning to be held. The Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd may rightly be declaring the death of NeoLiberalism due to the GFC, but that doesnt mean we need to abandon Liberalisms principles. Government shouldn’t be any larger than it absolutely must be. Welfare spending should be tightly targeted and intended to return people to society, rather than a continuous handout for those who could otherwise provide for themselves, and taxes should be as low as can be accommodated without leaving government broke.

Government is a force for good in society, but increased government doesnt automatically mean increased good. It has to be tied to specific priorities and fields. And where we can get rid of it, or leave people to themselves then it should be a principle of all liberals who decry the heavy hand of stigma, tradition or bureaucracy to force people to act otherwise than they might have chosen. Inevitably this idea of liberalism will mean some trade off’s. Reducing government nannying on tobacco lets us more earnestly stop its refusal to accept Gay Marriage. In both cases the individual should be supreme, and in both cases Government is not in control of the behaviour of people. Smoking rates are going down because society, not government has changed its view. In reverse society is increasingly embracing homosexuals as normal members of the community deserving the full recognition and support of the law. Likewise for efforts to prevent internet filtering or censorship of Video Games.

Liberalism is in a period of re-birth at the moment, but we need to be careful that the practices of a decades defense of government and the already existing programs from the harmful ravages of the right, doesnt translate into an automatic desire to expand or continue defending every dollar, now that the programs are in friendlier hands. It will take time and confidence before liberals can happily urge the removal of some ineffectual or pointless government spending without worrying that it will allow the Conservative and the callous to leap on it as proof Government is the problem. As Barack Obama urged in his inaguration speech:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.

If nothing else, such a confidence would help prevent Conservatives recasting failures of their own efforts as somehow sins not of their own making. Bush wasn’t a liberal in his big government ways. He was just a big spender, just as John Howard was here in Australia from 1996-2007. Nothing more, nothing less.