Wednesday, September 24, 2008

It's Not "How Much," It's "Where"

In a discussion I had over the weekend over political preferences, I was asked whether or not I preferred more government (a good question given my libertarian social stance and my somewhat complicated progressivist economic stance). I didn't have a good answer at the time, and muddied the waters even further with a statement on whether such discussions even take place in contemporary American politics.

After some reflection, though, I realize that the media's inability to "frame" such discussions is largely reflective of the obfuscation that has occurred in our two-party system since the advent of neo-liberalism with respect to the role of government. I would argue that it is no longer a question of "how much government," but rather, "where your (strong) government" is. Neither party, so far as I am aware, will cut the current $600 billion defense budget, cut entitlements (social security, medicare, and medicaid), stop paying down the debt (a financial obligation), eliminate corporate, agricultural, and energy subsidies, get rid of large swaths of public land, or institute a flat tax. These expenditures, with only subtle variations between the two parties in terms of priority, constitute about 90-95% of the government's operating budget. The war, social programs, education, and other non-entitlements and "pork," make up the remainder or are ad hoc additions to the budget (as is the case with both wars).

Thus the major "differences" in the role of government can only be discerned in the few areas where the candidates might differ: welfare, the use of public land, the potential nationalization of health care, the continuation of two wars, etc. Yet these do not mean a difference in the size of government or its influence in our daily lives. Obama and the democrats would have more government influence over the environment, progressive taxation, the limitation of corporate excess (only to a degree, however, and a small one at that), and the health care system. McCain and the Republicans would place more emphasis on defense, social engineering (banning gay marriage and abortion), subsidizing the use of public land, privatizing some programs (although they've only proposed to have a school voucher program in Washington, D.C.), and having a more regressive tax system. Neither platform intrinsically denies the size of government, but rather ensures its privilege in some areas while merely maintaining it in others.

This is all echoed, of course, by the proposed nationalization of the entire financial sector to the tune of nearly a trillion dollars (it remains to be seen how we'll pay for this or what it will do to inflation). This full-scale socialization and control of banking, investments, mortgages, and so forth by the Treasury, Fed, and SEC should give lie to the notion that we actually have -- or even want -- a free market and less government. Free markets are inherently stochastic, non self-correcting (at least in a time frame that we might like), and potentially unjust. They are also anathema to subsidies, tax loopholes, privileges for certain sectors of the economy, monopolization, the "casino economy," etc. We have not had a free market at any point in U.S. history (except, perhaps, in pre-Western time), as the U.S. economy has always been a "mixed" economy which bore the traces of protectionism, subsidies, monopolization and favortism (as in the Robber Barons of the late 19th century), the artificial insularization of the dollar, and most recently neo-liberal policies that advocated corporate exceptionalism and strucural adjustment programs in most of the developing world. We have, to be short, always used government in order to dictate or promote a particular economic vision of our own country and others around the world.

Hence I think the question of "how much" government we should have should be shifted to one of "to which end do we wish to use an already present and often illegitimately strong governing body?" And, unfortunately, I fear that even this question may indeed be obscured -- or, more correctly, unified -- as we move towards what David Brooks called "Progressive Corporatism."