Talk at the local Denny’s this morning turned ominous at the next table when the subject of Big Government came up. They all shook their heads at the sad state of affairs and pursed their lips like a favorite uncle had died and they all agreed that it was a shame what the world is comin’ to and that Big Gov’mint was the evil behind it all.
The ‘Big Government’ phobia is, as are all phobia by definition, a fear not based on real information. Big Government is the sort of crude generality that is a perfect green-screen onto which we can project images of the boogie men of our choice. Terms like Big Government or Bad Luck or God’s Will are useful scapegoats to blame when events are beyond our control or understanding.
The Boogie Man Meme seems to be a strong one. As with all strong memes, it’s hard sometimes to determine if it is in fact a gene. This is to say that strong memes often coincide with supporting physical mechanisms. Because we walk upright we have a meme that says it’s good to be ‘upright’ and also one that expresses scorn for those who ‘crawl on their bellies like snakes.’ The Boogie Man Meme is probably rooted in some survival reflex, perhaps fight-or-flight. It is useful for maintaining vigilance. If we can construct an external symbol for our fears it helps us to stay alert for possible real dangers which might exist. It is also a useful meme for manipulating simple minds. The Church has used the Boogie Man Meme for centuries to control the behavior of its adherents. When in a pinch they always trot the Devil out in one of his many costumes.
Political evangelists find the Boogie Man Meme to be particularly useful and they use many of them. In fact, they have a whole squad of them like the Men In Black to do their secret dirty work. The Big Government Boogie Meme is one of their favorites among others like the Liberal Media Boogie Meme and the late, great Red Menace Boogie Meme. But we still have the good old Creeping Socialism Boogie Meme which sounds even scarier. The beauty of the Big Government Boogie Meme is that it can be blamed for nearly anything. It lives on the general sense of oppression that many people feel about their lives.
I call the fear of Big Government a phobia because not only is it an imagined fear, it is an unreasoned one because those who usually scorn Big Government are the ones who benefit most from it and would suffer most in its absence. It can’t be denied that Big Government exists, it’s a real thing. The question becomes whether or not it’s a good thing.
First we need to define what government encompasses. Does it include State, Local and Federal? How about Agencies and Administrations, do they count? Water and School Districts? Is the Army part of the government? How about the Post Office? Corporations are governments of sorts. If you doubt that corporations are governments that make and enforce their own laws, try going into Apple Corporate Headquarters or any of the others and exercising your Constitutional rights of freedom of movement and association. They have their own police. WalMart makes rules that dominate the lives of their million employees and they enforce their rule of law in more acres of indoor real estate than any civil government controls. Loosely, government could be defined as anybody who can tell you what to do. Any entity big enough to make rules and enforce them can be called a government. As our numbers grow and our institutions inter-breed, the hard part is going to be telling the difference between governments and corporations and churches.
One of the deep and true colors in the American character is the dislike of government. For close to three centuries we have encouraged the grand myth of the pioneer spirit. Down deep we don’t like George Bush any more than we liked George III. Each man made the laws on the land he occupied. When civilization demanded more rules, he moved West until there was no more West. But still there were other frontiers. It’s one of the memes that makes this country great, the independent spirit. The hatred of Big Government has served this country well at times. It is not hard to understand how those coals can be easily rekindled. Demagogues in this country have been shouting about Big Government in one context or another since the days of Alexander Hamilton.
Pandering to this meme has become a thriving entertainment genre. Brands like Beck and O’Reilly and Limbaugh and Palin are big marketing business. It leaves a natural conservative like myself wistful for the days when we looked to people like Willliam Buckley and Barry Goldwater to be the intellectual voices of conservatism. Yes Virginia, Conservative ideologues once actually had ideas.
If we are going to joust with the Big Government Boogie Meme, we must eventually look the monster in the eye by asking the questions, ‘How does the properly svelte government behave? How big is too big and what is Just Right? What do we want our government to do and what do we wish it wouldn’t do?’ It’s easy to bemoan Big Government, but what would we have in its place?
Which aircraft carrier would you scuttle? Which firehouse or hospital would you close? How many miles of highway could go unmaintained or how much trash can sit on the curb for a few more days so that we can trim the old gov’mint waistline? Just what do we expect from our government?
When we hear Glenn Beck or Dick Army or Rand Paul or other Big Government Hunters like the rough and ready Ms. Palin, singing in chorus the old gospel favorite Carry Me Back to that Old Constitution, we must remind ourselves that what we as Americans expect from our government today would have sounded like a utopian fantasy to the authors of that Constitution. Our society and our way of life and our relationship with our governments have changed vastly in 200 years. The only way to rid ourselves of Big Government and get back to those quaint post-colonial ideals is to subtract about 300 million people. Our government is big because there are so many of us and we expect the government to do much more for us than simply protect our borders and deliver the mail as the back to basics gang would prefer the job description to read. Besides maintaining the general peace we expect our government to protect us from disease and destitution, guarantee that our water and beer are pure and that medicines don’t kill us. We also like it when parks and monuments and museums appear. We want the FCC to regulate the air-waves and the FAA to synchronize the air-ways. Neither of these jurisdictions existed when our Constitution was penned. We want protection from salmonella, polio, anthrax, AIDS and asteroids. That’s the government’s job, right? We want the government to take care of Granny’s pills and oxygen and keep Bernie Madoff out of her pension fund. Where are these things mentioned in the Constitution?
The Poet’s Eye doesn’t see Big Government as a problem. But then, I think that everybody should be a government employee and get their first paycheck the day they are born. I’m not just for Big Government, I’m for Universal Government. Not only would this system end unemployment which is the root of most other social evils, it would make a perpetual motion machine out of our economy. Everybody would get a base-level paycheck for just being alive and then the clever and industrious could improve their pay grade by doing useful jobs or moonlighting as entrepreneurs. Of course I know that the day this happens will be the same day someone trains an elephant and a donkey to do a pas de deux, but in the meantime I’m taking bets, if anybody wants Small Government and 7 points, I gotcha covered.
I see the states, across this big nation
I see the laws made in Washington, D.C.
I think of the ones I consider my favorites
I think of the people that are working for me