The next conservative viewpoint I would like to take on is that of limited government. For this conversation to proceed we should first define our terms. What is government? Government is “the authority that sets rules for a society, helps its members relate to one another … and keeps it running smoothly, securely, and peacefully.” (1) That seems reasonable and the sort of thing most reasonable folks would support. The opposite of government would be anarchy and something that surely the Framers did not intend for the United States to become.
The Preamble to the Constitution outlines in broad terms the purpose of the Federal government – 1. establish Justice, 2. insure domestic Tranquility, 3. provide for the common defense, 4. promote the general Welfare, and 5. secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. These then are the basic principles that our country is founded upon. Each could be (and probably has been) a thick, dust covered book in the Library of Congress. It is worth mentioning that the Judicial Branch has determined that the Preamble is not a law and that it neither defines government powers nor individual rights. (2) The body of the Constitution goes into further detail on how the government operates and how power is divided, and it is a prime source of law in the U.S.
I mention all of this so that we have a place to start the discussion. I also want to point out a common conservative viewpoint with regards to the Constitution is that it exists to codify rights to the States, and that over the years the amendments to the Constitution are (generally) an attack on States rights (3). This is at odds with the liberal view that the Federal government is charged with establishing equal protections for all. In their defense, I will say that in the 17th and 18th century, if you ignored women, immigrants (especially from Asia and Ireland), non-Christians, and slaves, the country was much more homogeneous than it is today. If the majority of your communities are small, white, Christian, and patriarchal than for sure it will be easier to resolve conflicts. In this context it is reasonable to look at a strong central government with concern. However in America today the historically disenfranchised would like to share in the American Dream and a strong Federal government holds the States to the same standard of civil rights across the nation.
Changing demographics have played a key role in U.S. politics in recent elections. In recent polls, Whites who say they are troubled by the pace of racial change typically express conservative views and in particular with regard to the role of government (4). Some of this anger derives from an aging white population that does not want to pay for a young population of color through the application of tax money collected to support a wide variety of Federal programs. There are at least 92 Federal programs (5) aimed at helping lower income Americans – and as we saw in Part 1 of my series, minorities in general and blacks in particular make less money than whites. This boils down to older whites wanting to pay less Federal tax to support People of Color. The Federal government pays $400 billion annually (in 2007) for programs like Food Stamps and Section 8 housing (6), as opposed to $11 billion spent annually by the States (7).
To talk of “conservative values” without talking about the reality of race is to ignore the reality of life in America. It goes back to my point in Part 1 of how conservatives look back to an idealized past where all you had to do to live the American Dream was work 40 hours a week and cut your lawn on Sunday to retire with a great pension and spend your golden years traveling across the country in your RV. This is not true now and it was probably not true then.
So what of this “limited government” then? I am arguing that nobody wants an Orwellian government; what we liberals want is a government that accepts that all things are not equal and is willing to reallocate some of its more financially secure citizens’ resources to do something about it. We want state governments that are able to keep some of their local character while at the same time protecting all citizens within their borders to a minimal standard. We want and expect that all who benefit from the society accept that their wealth comes as a result of the shared American experience. What President Obama said in 2012 “You didn’t built that” – the president’s remarks reflected the belief, common among Democrats, that successful citizens owed their success partly to public infrastructure and government spending, and that they should contribute to finance public goods (8).
In summary, conservatives and liberals alike in fact believe in “limited government”. What we disagree on is to what degree there is a racially biased disenfranchisement and to what extent the Federal government should step in to remedy it.
Daniel Cashman, EAMP, MS(AOM), NCCAOM Dipl. Acupuncture