What American Conservatives Really Mean When they Say “Small Government”

Posted on October 28, 2012

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© Josh Sager – September 2012

In modern American politics, conservatives across the country near-universally support the ideal of “small” or “limited” government. In invoking the idea of a small government, conservatives attempt to paint the picture of a large, intrusive, wasteful, and ineffective government that they are trying to reign in and make effective. Oftentimes these conservatives claim that government is holding the United States’ economy back, thus simply removing regulations, cutting “wasteful” program and reducing taxes will result in prosperity for all Americans. Unfortunately, the conservative ideal of “small government” is merely a fantasy, created by conservative elites as a smokescreen for the true intentions of the conservative movement.

In reality, the modern American conservative’s ideal of “small government” manifests through the cutting of programs which don’t benefit the wealthy individuals and special interests that fund the conservative movement—programs such as entitlements, environmental/worker protections, and education.

The leadership of the conservative movement is motivated primarily by “enlightened self-interest” (Read: greed) and its members garner no benefit from programs which help the poor/middle classes; these conservative elites see such programs as wasteful “big government” because it fails to work for them and have tricked the rank-and-file conservatives to attack programs against their own interests. Once the elites who run the conservative movement determine which programs are useful to the elite and which should be labeled as “waste”, they propagate this determination down to the average conservative individual. Unfortunately, most individuals have little to no knowledge of the actual effects of policy and the conservative elites have little problem convincing the rank-and-file conservative to vote against their own interests and in favor of the interests of the elites.

The perfect illustration of this phenomenon is found in the perpetuation of the petrochemical subsidies. Oil and gas companies are among the most profitable industries on the planet, yet they receive billions of dollars in subsidies—this represents an almost textbook definition of a wasteful government program. Money which could be spent on important and underfunded things (ex. national infrastructure) is being given to immensely profitable companies, yet those who proclaim to target “wasteful government” have done nothing but support these programs. This hypocrisy illustrates just how little conservatives care about wasteful programs when the waste is benefitting those who fund their campaigns, and scuttles their arguments that they are simply principled against government waste.

Put plainly: Conservative elites want a country where they get big government benefits and small government restrictions, while imposing small government benefits and big government restrictions on everybody else.

Programs which prevent wealthy individuals and corporations from exploiting others are held in particular contempt by modern conservative elites. Regulatory bodies such as the EPA and the FDA—as well as numerous worker protection laws—have endured incessant conservative attacks over the past decade, despite the very real good that they do for society. These programs not only “waste” money on helping the poor, but are specifically designed to interfere with the wealth entity’s “freedom” to act as they see fit. In protecting the rights of society, these programs prevent those with power from exploiting or harming others for a profit; conservative elites (many of whom are the exploiters) see this intervention as an attack on their “liberty” and will do virtually anything to remove these obstacles.

In the minds of conservative elites, money which is “wasted” on things that other people rely upon is simply money that could be given to them in the form of a tax break. By this mindset, the individual simply doesn’t care about the needs of their neighbor and is content only when they are exempted from paying into any program which they don’t receive a direct benefit from. An utter lack of empathy into the situations and needs of others has become and endemic characteristic of the modern conservative movement to an extreme which has never been seen in the history of the ideology—even conservative icon Ronald Reagan was willing to raise taxes when the country needed more money to operate.

With social issues, particularly surrounding gay rights and abortion, we see an illustration of the conservative “small government” fiction. Despite claiming to support a small and unobtrusive government, the conservative movement has pushed heavily for increased governmental regulations on personal activities that they find objectionable—gay marriage and abortion rights being the most common things that modern conservatives decry and attempt to legislate away. These conservatives don’t see these restrictions as “big government overreach” simply because such regulations don’t overreach into THEIR lives, only the lives of others. The conservative hypocrisy in the realm of social issues is indicative of their ideological mindset and gives us a clear look into the conservative views on the size of government.

While there is a legitimate argument about the size and scope of government to be had, the modern conservative movement is not even attempting to make this argument. Rather than pushing for a truly limited government, the modern conservative movement promotes a government which gives its members big government benefits while ensuring that everybody else only receives a small government pittance; small government regulations are put on to guns, religious institutions, and civil rights, while big government restrictions are imposed upon gays, women, and atheists. This vision is a product of a selfish minority and all Americans should reject it on its premise, regardless of ideological vision.