Too big or too small? Depends on how you ask

By Nancy Churchill

Funny how some of the richest people on the planet, and those who represent them in the legislature, claim that turning “Big Government” into “Small Government” is what “the American people” want them to do.

Such was the essence of two interviews — David Koch with Anthony Mason on CBS Sunday Morning, and Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd — Sunday, October 11. This is the magic of framing, when you can claim that “the American people” are more interested in shrinking the deficit by cutting essential social programs they, themselves depend upon, than they are in lifting up the middle class.

So let’s examine just what Big Government vs. Small Government means. Conservative lawmakers usually blame Big Government for regulations that, they claim, stifle small business. If one digs a bit deeper, however, these lawmakers are usually funded by giant transnational corporations that benefit by the removal of rules controlling, say, how much they may pollute.

Big Government is also blamed for so-called “entitlement” programs like “Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, most Veterans’ Administration programs, federal employee and military retirement plans, unemployment compensation, food stamps, and agricultural price support programs” (Wikipedia). Originally workers were seen as “entitled” to these programs by paying into them, or because they rendered their service as veterans. But lately “entitlement” has been a pejoratively term used to disparage programs like “food stamps … which people [can] become eligible to receive without paying into a system.”

Small Government is a term libertarians use to describe what President Thomas Jefferson meant when he said, “[A] wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” They see this as a prohibition on taxing or regulating industry. Part of this argument extends to the incessant yet thoroughly debunked claim that tax cuts to the rich create jobs.

Reframing is needed here. Whether government is too big or too small depends upon who is defining it, and what they, themselves expect to get from that definition. As we have seen, successful framing determines which actions are considered or excused. As Robert Reich says, there is no big or small government, there is only government.

But deficit hawks justify shrinking government by claiming that’s what the American people want them to do. Well, the wealthiest among us — who happen to be the donor class that will benefit most from additional tax cuts and regulation “reform” — may be Americans, but they can hardly be called “the American people.” As government is shrunk on their behalf, they’re the ones who get out of paying their fair share of taxes and who benefit from fewer regulations and fewer consequences for their injurious corporate activities, with the sometimes deadly repercussions borne by people and the environment. And no one admits that the government they are shrinking provides essential services to people who have earned them, or who have fallen into desperate need because they’ve been preyed upon for decades by that very wealthy class.

In my opinion, most people want lawmakers to focus on these issues: creating jobs that pay a living wage; reducing income and wealth inequality; creating tuition and debt free college; getting Big Money out of politics; addressing global warming, racial injustices, fair and humane immigration policies, women’s, veterans’ and LGBT rights; expanding Social Security and Medicare for all; and, most of all, reforming Wall Street.

Oh, wait, that’s Senator Bernie Sander’s presidential platform! No wonder he’s so popular! He’s tuned into what “the American people” really want!

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