A Civics Lesson for Conservatives Why Regulation Does Not Equal Big Government

Jul 14 2010 Published by under Featured News

Conservatives often confuse the concept of big government with regulation, but as they rail against government regulation and what they see as control of our lives. They don’t mind the corporations controlling our lives but then conservatives have always been big friends of corporate interests rather than the common good.

When conservatives debate the size of government, they often rely on the false equivalence that regulation equals big government

Let’s take a moment to do what everyone else is doing and debate government. If we’re going to do this, we ought (unlike the Tea Partiers) to at least have some idea what we are talking about.

Here I am going to argue not for big government, but a government capable of doing those things that are required of it.

Government was well understood by many Enlightenment thinkers as a social contract. In The Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes put it succinctly: people make governments to protect themselves because in the state of nature life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

As a consequence we essentially say, “I give up my right to govern myself and we agree to let the government govern us and to authorize its actions on our behalf.”

This seems good and reasonable to me. If we agree to create a government and to abide by the covenant, we get to do away with all that nasty, brutish, and short stuff.

John Locke (1689) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) furthered this thinking about government as a social contract, each adding their own particular views. By the time our own revolutionaries needed to form a government (1787) it was clearly understood that if the people had an obligation to government, government clearly had an obligation to the people.

After all, it was a government acting without the consent of the people that got people so riled up, especially when the things the government was doing wasn’t seen as being done for the good of the people (or of businesses i.e. local merchants) but for the good of the government itself.

It is sometimes argued that the idea of inalienable rights is contrary to social contractualism but we see a fusion of the two in the Constitution, which accepts in the Bill of Rights the old common law rights of the English, but also that certain inalienable rights exist, namely “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and these are made part of the contract. That is, there are more rights than which are simply agreed to exist by the parties concerned.

The epitome of Enlightenment thinking, it’s very highest point, is the result: the Constitution of the United States of America and its attached Bill of Rights, which clearly state how this social contract will function.

Our Founding Fathers had varying views of government. Many of their sayings have been appropriated by the Tea Party, who, acting as today’s “patriots” and “real” Americans, unsurprisingly seem to take the extreme view that our Founding Fathers wanted no government at all.

Considering the trouble they went to in order to establish one: Declaration of Independence (1776), the Revolution (1775-1783), the Articles of Confederation (1781), the Constitution and Bill of Rights (1787), this notion seems absurd.

A state of no government, a sort of utopian fantasy, was held to be an ideal by some but even the most radical opponents of federalism did not imagine that a country could function without any sort of government at all.

The real debate was about the size and function of government, not its existence or non-existence.

Thomas Jefferson, one of those who thought less was better said, “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government” and “I own that I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.”

Of course, every historical utterance has a context. The context of Jefferson’s words was the early years of the industrial revolution. Cottage industry was still the norm, not factories, and small businesses were more common that big corporations, though the Enlightenment world had seen the potential evils of such entities in the infamous East India Company.

Had Jefferson lived a century later, in the age of America’s robber barons, his opinion might well have been otherwise.

We can quote today’s Republican saint, Ronald Reagan, who said, “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.”

But to protect the people the government must not focus only on foreign nations or terrorists, but on the “excesses of democracy” feared by Madison when he labored on the Constitution, that is, the tyranny of state legislatures, and later also the tyranny of unregulated corporations.

It was well understood that legislatures can oppress as effectively as kings. We have seen California deprive people of their Constitutional Rights (Proposition Eight 2008) and the Arizona Immigration Law (2010). So can corporations, as the Industrial Age has shown. And sometimes the government drops the ball, as with the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act (1996).

Usually, the government functions the way it is supposed to. It took an act of the federal government (and 618,000 deaths) to end slavery in this country. Left up to the states, who knows how long blacks might have remained enslaved? It took an act of the federal government (and armed troops) to protect civil rights (1964). Left up to the states, who knows how long blacks would have remained disenfranchised? It took the federal government to protect workers from corporate tyranny, setting the work week at 44, then 40 hours (1938/1950).

This is government doing its job protecting the people, to give us the chance to obtain that life, liberty and happiness we have been given the right to pursue. This job requires taxes; it requires laws, it requires regulations, and it requires oversight. These things require that the government have not only certain strength but a certain size.

Government cannot remain inflexibly small in a changing world, or in a world where certain entities (state governments, religious groups, corporations, etc) continually seek to limit or erode the rights of the common people in whole or in part.

A government of the people, by the people, and for the people, is not a government wished for by corporations, for corporations care nothing for the people or their welfare, but only for their bottom line. The board of directors must be happy, the stockholders must be happy, but the people are there for one purpose only: to be fleeced.

Did anyone miss this lesson in 2007? It was delivered by the corporations with great clarity.

Conservatives missed it. They still rail against government regulation and what they see as control of our lives. They don’t mind the corporations controlling our lives but then conservatives have always been big friends of corporate interests rather than the common good. They seem to think the Founding Fathers wrote “government of the corporations, by the corporations, and FOR the corporations.”

The Supreme Court seemed to agree with this reading when they ruled against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law (2010). Now it is up to one branch of the government (the legislative) to protect us from another (the judicial) just as for the eight years of the Bush Administration the judicial protected us from the executive.

That system of checks and balances is a delicate thing.

George Washington said, “The administration of justice is the firmest pillar of government.” A Republican politician today will bemoan the lot of BP but they show little concern over the plight of the people who suffer as a result of the Gulf oil spill. A Republican politician will bemoan the lot of the corporations when it comes to an issue like net neutrality. He will accuse the Democrats of seeking to give the government control of the internet while he himself seeks to give that control to corporations.

The example of an early mega corporation, the East India Company, provides a salutary lesson for those of us today concerned about the dangers of corporations free of regulation. The East India Company was able to perpetrate its many evils because of a lack of government regulation and oversight. The oil giants Exxon and BP have been able to perpetrate their evils because of a lack of regulation, as have the modern-day robber barons on Wall Street. It is not government who has harmed the people in these instances, except by failing to adequately protect them as even Ronald Reagan said it should.

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