Part of an analysis of Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” false controversy:
Jefferson, whom Democrats claim as the progenitor of their party and whom they celebrate with annual “Jefferson-Jackson Dinners,” was perfectly clear. The people of the United States created the government for one purpose only: to secure their rights. That is, the people, their possessions and their God-given rights existed prior to the state, which the people created to serve them.
With his Roanoke speech, Obama turned Jefferson on his head. In Obama’s formulation, government is not a tool for the people’s use, but the very foundation upon which all of American prosperity is built. Government is not dependent upon the people; the people are dependent upon the government.
Aside from the question of whether the author’s interpretations of the founders’ intentions are correct, the real question here is, can we say that Obama’s analysis is true? Do we depend on the government for being who we are?
The answer is easy: of course we do. I am tempted to add the biting comment, “Duh.”
We would be a completely different nation had we followed limited intentions as to the role of government. The fact is, we have grown, evolved, and become much more than was first established or envisioned. Had we not, we would not be the world power we are today, and we would not have the society we have today.
Historical romanticism is good and all, but you cannot base modern governance upon an ideal of returning to the principles of the role of government which may or may not have been an intended ultimate limit back when we were a fledgling agrarian society in a completely different age where human rights were delegated to a privileged few.
We should also not be fooled by the idea that this is about principles. Those espousing severe cutbacks in government programs are not doing so out of love for historical virtue. It is a more visceral reaction based upon avarice and bias. All the good that government does and has done is either dismissed, taken for granted, or subsumed into accomplishments by agents other than government. The cries for cutbacks come primarily from a desire to funnel money to the sector from which the cries originate while cutting as much as possible the burden of those doing the crying.
As a result, we see not so much reason and support as we do rewriting and obfuscation.
The writer of the article does essentially that. He first dismisses Obama’s idea that the middle class owes much of its existence to the the federal government by throwing up the straw man that Obama’s argument rests upon the supposition that the “middle class” at the time of the revolution would have to have been created, or allowed to form, by King George. Then he dismisses the entire argument about infrastructure by bizarrely arguing that this was the people acting, and not the government acting, defining the difference as being that the American people had tight control over how far the government would go in such endeavors. In short, the key to his argument seems to be based upon redefining things so that he’s right.
This has nothing to do with the argument being made publicly today, including the response to Obama’s statement: that government should not be, nor should ever have been as big as it is or as involved in advancing the general welfare of our nation. Building the nation should be up to private enterprise, as should health care, pensions, schools, security, and most everything else. And if you build a business, it’s all you and the government never did anything to help you–instead it only hindered you. Because we all know that government can never actually create any jobs, and when it tries to help, only horrific disaster ensues.
The question, then, goes back to that fundamental idea which the writer proposed, or more specifically, to the idea being forwarded by conservatives today: that the sole purpose of government is “to secure our rights” and anything beyond that is irrelevant to our achievements, or has actually held us back.
To consider this, you have to ask, exactly how does government secure our rights?
In the minimalist sense, government should do nothing more than is absolutely necessary to see that our rights are preserved. This would require a very small government, defending our borders and doing minimal policing inside them. No foreign wars would be prosecuted; no special services or assistance would be rendered to the people; no involvement in the economy would be performed. The government would make sure we’re not molested from without and do the bare minimum to preserve order within, and otherwise try to be as invisible as possible to the people. No huge projects, no safety nets, no redistribution of wealth. No trying to make the people better, just maintain the status quo and leave the rest up to society without the government sticking its nose in. No forced integration, no affirmative action, no government condoning of things like gay marriage.
Think over our history and how this would have affected our development as a country. Would we be who we are today without that?
Hell, no. We’d be a completely different society, and not a better one. We’d still be capitalist, but with income inequality even more severe than it is now. We would have become a plutocracy far beyond what we see today, with a manufacturing economy spreading from the north based on slave wages, and an agrarian economy from the south based on slave labor. Slavery would have lasted far longer, perhaps even into the present, with civil rights probably still only a dream. Public education would have been for-pay and only for those with wealth, as would be any kind of substantial medical care.
Despite being wealth- and production-centered, American industry and business would not have grown as it did. There would have been no government push for infrastructure. The rail system would have been minimal, interstate highways never built. Electrical systems would not have grown beyond sparse usage. Everything that our government has spent a great deal of money on in terms of infrastructure would have only been built as far as it was economically viable for private business–in short, not nearly as comprehensively as we have today. This would have saved money for businesses in the short run, but stunted their growth terribly in the long run. Computer technology was primarily funded by government spending, even as far back as the 19th century; that industry would have been greatly delayed, and infrastructure like the Internet never built. Ironically, it has not been the people bleeding the rich and the businesses for welfare checks, it has been industry calling for taxpayer money to build infrastructure too expensive for them to build themselves.
The author of the article suggests otherwise, and the argument could be made that building a national infrastructure is vital to preserving the rights of the people. (Ironically, these same conservatives are trying to stop infrastructure spending.) The problem with that argument is that if you take the idea of “preserving the rights of the people” as far as doing things like building infrastructure (acting positively to improve the society the people live in) then you essentially have the government we have today–in fact, you actually have a far more socialist government than we have today. How is providing financial security and good health to the populace not preserving their rights while building an infrastructure is? Really what the author is saying is, “We’ll stick to the absolutist principle except for stuff we like.” Sorry, but no–this is a situation where you cannot be “a little bit pregnant.” Either government works to preserve the rights of the people actively, or it doesn’t. Anything else is not principle, but instead is cherry-picking. Either we stick to the barest principles of the founders or we expand beyond it. You can’t establish a principle and then pick and choose when to violate it and still say the principle is sacrosanct to suit your needs. Sticking to the principle would have meant no government building of infrastructure, instead leaving it to private industry. And the fact is, we have decided as a society to act in the people’s interest.
Minimalists would have furthermore only protected imminent threats to our borders, but would not have participated in conflicts overseas. Even the Monroe Doctrine might not have passed. America would not have expanded its influence overseas, and would have sat out the first two world wars, figuring that we were not threatened because it would be too costly for European and Asian powers to bring war to American shores. America would never have become a world leader, and its ability to extend trade beyond its own shores would be in grave doubt.
I could go on, but you get the idea. All of this and far, far more serves as the foundation for the America we all know and want to have. It is all based on a strong central government which has grown well beyond simply minimally maintaining the rights of citizens–something which, when the Constitution was drafted, was limited mostly to wealthy white male land owners in any case.
What the government became, and what conservatives are trying to deconstruct, is a government which acts as an advocate for the people. If industry pollutes, the government stops them from harming the people. If a group is deprived of its rights by a bigoted majority, the government protects the rights of the people, not the ability of the majority to persecute. If the people are forced through desperate poverty to work for ruinous wages in harmful conditions, the government becomes their advocates. But the government does more than just that; it has tried to create a society where, as in a family, no one gets left behind to die in the street. It intervenes so the elderly are not forced to sleep under bridges in winter because some rich bastard stole their pension funds; so the poor are not made to starve in a land of plenty; so people can expect decent medical care without having to pay a king’s ransom because an industry holds their very lives as hostage.
Conservatives hate this. To them, it means that they are paying money for some freeloading bum to live in the lap of luxury with washing machines and big-screen TVs. They see a stark dichotomy with them doing all the work and making all the progress while half the nation sits on their ass without paying a dime in taxes, smoking dope and buying booze with food stamps, acting as parasites on the teat of big government. Reagan’s mythical welfare queen, now on steroids and writ large across an entire class.
Conservatives hate this straw-man moocher. You heard the crowds at the debates, not cheering, but shouting in outraged triumph at the idea of letting a poor schmuck die cold and alone in the streets instead of making them participate in paying for health care that would save the man’s life. You heard the crowds bused in to disrupt town hall meetings: I’ve got my Medicare, don’t you dare tax me to pay for health care for the poor. This is what they mean when they say they want “their country back.” It is what this all really comes down to: not a return to the founders’ glorious principles, but instead, “I want the benefits of government for me, not for those other bums.” Its just like the vote-suppression movements: “this country is for me; I deserve it and you’re a no-good parasite; you can go to hell!” They see others as being selfish when in fact it is them.
Obama was perfectly correct, and those who think government should never have grown beyond its infancy are indulging in a pipe dream. We are, in fact, not just dependent on each other within our own borders, we are dependent upon the world as a whole. Contrary to the fantasy world some libertarians dream of, you cannot have even a fraction of the wealth and prosperity we have enjoyed without also requiring exactly the things that these people wish never existed. Anyone who thinks they built a business and did it “completely” on their own is sadly and selfishly mistaken. Anyone who believes they would be better off without government is a fool.
The fact is, were the “drownable in a bathtub” government to exist, these people would not have a fraction of the things they presume have appeared because of their own individual efforts or the independent might of free markets. They are prosperous and believe they owe no one else for that prosperity.
Reality is very much distant from that presumption.