Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: Big Government

Obama on the size of Government

Obama’s rhetorical skill is often commented on in terms of its prose and poetry. In that he is indeed a rare breed of politician, but it’s also not that useful a skill. Any politician of merit has speech writers who can add such gloss to their words, and whilst Obama certainly established a bond with the voters at his rally through his eloquent language, the difficult and much more politically important part was to get them there in the first place. His prose is nice, but only as a topping. What is then often missed is how Obama is very good at noting the opposing arguments, faithfully describing them (unlike a lot of politicians especially his predecessor Bush) and re-butting them. Take this discussion from his recent Press Conference on government involvement in the auto industry:

Question: Thank you, sir. You are currently the chief shareholder of a couple of very large mortgage giants. You’re about to become the chief shareholder of a car company, probably two.

And I’m wondering, what kind of shareholder are you going to be? What is the government’s role as the keeper of public — public trust and bonds in — in soon-to-be public companies again? Thank you.

Obama: Well, I think our — our first role should be shareholders that are looking to get out. You know, I don’t want to run auto companies. I don’t want to run banks. I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already. I’ve got more than enough to do. So the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we’re going to be.
We are in unique circumstances. You had the potential collapse of the financial system, which would have decimated our economy, and so we had to step in.
So I just want to help them get there. But I want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy, you know, meddling in the private sector, if — if you could tell me right now that, when I walked into this office that the banks were humming, that autos were selling, and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran, and a pandemic flu, I would take that deal.
And — and that’s why I’m always amused when I hear these, you know, criticisms of, “Oh, you know, Obama wants to grow government.” No. I would love a nice, lean portfolio to deal with, but that’s not the hand that’s been dealt us.

Obama is making the obvious point that he has a chocked full agenda, but he’s also making an important point which politicians and pundits on the left almost never do, and note that there is nothing inherently good about increasing the size of government from a liberal perspective. Making government larger is not a good in and of itself for the Left. Instead there is the recognition that government can be a force for good, and is sometimes the only way to deal with certain issues, and as such ought to be involved. These are issue specific however and towards clear principled goals such as guaranteeing universal healthcare and education standards, providing defence of the country, etc. The left, and those of us with a Liberal view in particular would love a government which had very low tax levels and largely didn’t bother people. But so long as there are specific problems such as people not being able to get basic healthcare because of their low income (or simply surviving if they don’t have a job), then government is needed to address the problem. If that could be done with small government and low taxes, great, but no way has been found, hence the support for government intervention. Government involvement is simply a means, not an end for the left.

Whilst I can understand the need to defend the role of government from the traditional right wing attacks on it, particularly after the emergence of the New Right, lead by figures such as Ronald Reagan (“The nine most dangerous words in the english language are ‘I’m from the Government and I’m here to help'”; Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them; Government always finds a need for whatever money it gets. etc), the left takes a daily beating from the right & dissuades others from joining its ranks because it is held that expanding government is a principle or goal of the left. It isn’t, and however much you go through the literature by modern or classic left wing thinkers within the western democratic-capitalist tradition, you will never find any advocating the growth of government as a good in and of itself. Instead, what you will find are specific issue related arguments for using government where no other option is viable or able to fulfill the principles and priorities of the society.

Obama would have watched and seen the tea-bag rallies, and here, in the context of joking about how much else he has to do, he is also sending out a little message to those who attended the rallies: ‘hey, I agree with you. But circumstances have forced our hand’. Obama knows that if the economic debate is about Big Government vs Small Government, he & the left will get beaten. But if the debate is about specific policy measures to respond to the debate, then he will win and win big (indeed the polls indicate people are rewarding his administration for being seen to act & punishing Republicans for not having clear policy responses).

The public largely doesn’t care about size, but there is a natural and usually wise concern about government ever getting too big, too large. Liberals and the Left have spent the better part of the twentieth century defending their policies against Conservatives who have sought to use this public suspicions to further their own policy agenda. Whilst this dynamic won’t significantly change, the left could benefit from occasionally noting as Obama did on Wednesday that they too share the publics concern about the size of government, and have no generalised desire to grow government as a policy end. Not only would this help shift the debate to specifics, and take some of the wind out of those who are concerned about such principles, and help convince more liberals that they can support and even get involved with left wing political parties.

Obama won unending praise for his lofty rhetoric, but he won independent and conservative voters support because he was able to recognise their concerns, identify areas of common agreement (in this case that neither want government running the auto companies), and then suggest why his policy response were the best response for the problem. He is in many ways a typical, orthodox Liberal, but because of this rhetorical effort, he makes liberalism seem like pragmatism, whilst sidestepping some of the baggage that has hampered the efforts of his fellow left wing politicians. That is his real linguistic ability, and one far too rarely noticed by the press.

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.