How the “Limited Government” Scam Rolls On
“Limited government” means to take power away from governments elected by and answerable to the voters and hand that power off to massive, monopolistic corporations and the morbidly rich…
So, Nikki Haley — the nation’s currently most famous advocate for “limited government” — turned in a respectable showing in New Hampshire last night. What might that mean for our country?
In New Hampshire, people confined to the state’s prisons stamp out license plates with the motto “Live Free or Die,” an irony Vermonters often chuckle about (I’ve lived in both states). The state even threw an unfortunate soul, George Maynard, into jail for two weeks for covering up the motto on his license plate (he took it to the US Supreme Court and won).
There’s nothing funny, though, about the impact of the “limited government” obsession that’s consumed the state since William Loeb and his wife Nackey took over the only statewide newspapers (the Manchester Union Leader and the New Hampshire Sunday News) back in the 1950s with their reflexive hatred of anything “big government.”
New Hampshire’s Republican Governor Chris Sununu has endorsed Nikki Haley because of her support for “low taxes and limited government”: the GOP presidential candidate was ranked above Trump, DeSantis, Scott, Pence, or Christie in her embrace of “limited government” by the new billionaire-friendly think tank known as the Institute for Legislative Analysis.
While you didn’t hear a single TV commentator last night, in their analysis of Haley’s showing in the Granite State, mention what “limited government” actually means or its impact on Americans — it’s not considered a “sexy topic” that will drive eyeballs or outrage in this infotainment era — it’s actually one of the most important debates this country should be having right now.
That’s because a representative democratic republican government is designed to be the glue that holds a society together.
It’s how we collectively make sure that our economy works, but does so in a way that benefits the nation rather than steals from it. It’s how we guarantee people don’t fall so far below the floor of vulnerability that they can’t recover. It’s how, along with a regulated capitalist economy, we make sure people’s needs are met.
The entire “limited government” meme is the opposite of that. While the phrase traces back to the 16th and 17th centuries and people like John Locke and Montesquieu, the idea at that time was to limit the oppressive power (both politically and economically) of Europe’s oligarchs and kings. They did not represent the interests of the average person, after all: limiting their power and reach enhanced personal and societal liberty for the working class.
Today, however, when wielded by Republicans, “limited government” means to take power away from governments elected by and answerable to the voters and hand that power off to massive, monopolistic corporations and the morbidly rich.
The “conservative” goal is to break the bond between people and the government they elect, so the functions of government can be redirected away from the needs of working-class people and toward supporting the increased accumulation of wealth by America’s oligarchs.
But when government operates properly, there are incredible efficiencies that the GOP has worked for decades to prevent you from knowing about.
Government should provide the social safety net that holds together the various ways that people get their needs met, whether through regulating business to prevent exploitation and abuse of workers or through the direct delivery of services. It’s the “general welfare” of the nation that the Constitution mentions in its preamble.
For example, when government is responsible for paying for healthcare, it then has an incentive to keep people healthy, which lowers healthcare costs. A few years ago, I did my show from the studios of Danish Radio (their equivalent of NPR) and interviewed several conservative members of the Danish parliament as well as the editor of the nation’s leading conservative newspaper.
I asked every one of them — as conservatives — if they wanted to privatize Denmark’s national healthcare system. The answers I got back ranged from, “Are you crazy?” to “That’s the most stupid thing I’ve heard in months!”
One went on a long rant about how Copenhagen had just shut down miles of urban streets, converting them into bike lanes or walking paths, as a way to reduce the nation’s healthcare costs. He explained that getting people out of cars and onto bikes or walking to work reduced obesity, heart disease, and even cut the number of strokes the country experienced.
“That,” he concluded, “is truly conservative!”
Another effort to reduce the expense of their healthcare system has been an innovative anti-smoking campaign “thanking smokers” for telling their children the dangers of smoking. When all of society helps cover the cost of destructive behaviors like smoking or a sedentary lifestyle, all of society gets involved in trying to reduce those risks and harms.
Similarly, when the entire nation understands that their future economic prosperity and political stability depends on a well-educated populace, schools are top-rate and well-funded. In Denmark, students are paid an $800 monthly stipend (for up to 6 years) to go to college, which is otherwise free.
On the other hand, when government is stripped of the responsibility of educating its young people — as is happening right now in multiple Republican-controlled states that are deconstructing their public education systems in favor of vouchers — a different set of motives from “what’s best for society” kick in. In America’s case, they’re either ideological (religious and all-white “conservative” schools) or the profit motive. The result is that the population is dumbed down, harming society as a whole.
Another example is public power. The most reliable and least expensive electricity in the US is generated, generally, by community-owned power plants.
Because their first mandate is to serve their customers — rather than making a profit for their wealthy shareholders — decisions at publicly-owned utilities are made through the lens of what works best for everybody. While private, corporate-owned power systems are paying off politicians to make it harder to connect solar panels to the grid, for example, publicly owned utilities encourage such socially responsible behavior.
These synergies argue for government involvement in those areas of the commons where “individual responsibility” is difficult or impossible. Outside of the morbidly rich, most people can’t build a hospital to serve their families, own a private airstrip for their personal jet, or put their children through the nation’s top colleges.
Nonetheless, the “limited government” scam rolls on, encouraged by billions spent every year by rightwing billionaires to fund think tanks and media outlets that endlessly repeat the phrase in the context of healthcare, education, and utilities.
The one area where limiting government makes a lot of sense — and is consistent with the Founders’ intent when they used phrases like that — is the exact opposite of the positions Nikki Haley and the GOP have taken over the past four decades since the party was taken over by billionaires in the Reagan Revolution.
A “limited government” wouldn’t:
— Tell you who you can and can’t marry.
— Criminalize sex between consenting adults.
— Threaten a woman with prison for getting an abortion or having a miscarriage.
— Try to limit access to birth control.
— Purge books from schools and libraries.
— Inspect the genitals of people who just want to use the bathroom or engage in sports.
— Require students to pray on a football field or in a public school.
— And it wouldn’t be subsidizing the fossil fuel industry to the tune of hundreds of billions every year, or helping the morbidly rich get richer through obscene tax cuts and a cap on Social Security taxes that exclusively benefits people making over $160,000 a year.
But don’t tell that to Republicans.
They’ve been lied to so long by the billionaire Murdoch family’s Fox “News,” billionaire-funded think tanks, and billionaire-owned radio and TV stations that they’ve developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, identifying more with the needs of the wealthy than with their own working-class peers and families.
Limiting the power of government to oppress people is a good thing, which is why Democrats support individual freedoms like those above. Limiting the power of government to advance the public good like Republicans are pushing, however, only helps the billionaires who evangelize for that agenda.
The morbidly rich and their think tanks that are pushing for “limited government“ are really arguing against us being able to collectively protect ourselves and each other, all so that they can maximize the amount of wealth they can extract from us. It’s just that simple.