Over the last several decades the American right, through a concerted effort to advantageously frame political issues, an initiative designed to insinuate into the American consciousness a set of assumptions, perceptions and eventually, something like a consensus toward critical aspects of American society, has managed to establish any number of fallacies, fantasies, myths and pure falsehoods in the minds of many Americans. Once inculcated these become stubbornly ingrained, reinforced daily by a relentless, vast and powerful conservative media apparatus and conservative politicians. While the need for an equally effective and fierce effort to disabuse Americans of these faulty notions, and to replace them with sound ideas based on demonstrable fact, proven merit and historical and present reality is a pressing matter, it is still both useful and certainly amusing to examine these various fallacies one by one, which I thought I would undertake to do in an irregular series here, this being the initial installment.
I will be using for this purpose the first denotation of the word lie, in other words that which is untrue, factually wrong or erroneous, a statement or assertion whose content contradicts material fact. I can’t know of course the motivation of the person speaking the lie, though I can speculate. I can’t be sure whether or not a false statement is made out of ideological conviction that impels a person to make it with more credence to ideological verity than material or historical fact. Nor can I be sure a statement is not the result of pure ignorance, an ignorance resulting perhaps from the assimilation of repeated falsehoods, myths and incorrect facts.
Today’s Big Lie is central to modern conservatism, and is gospel to the wackadoodle legions, including most of today’s Republicans, who claim the Objectivist or Libertarian far-right creeds influenced by the magnificently goofy Ayn Rand, the Austrian School, the concoctors of Trickle Down Economics and other sources of dubious theorizing and philosophizing from the Far Side. This lie is as much defiant of common sense and humane values as it is of economic history and economic reality.
This lie broadly is the set of assertions claiming governments are the principal source of all ills economically, and that government is inherently less efficient than private enterprise, and less critical to economic health This lie includes the utopian proposition that all that is economically positive stems from the private sector and all things privatized.
Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Reagan was noted for such vapid generalities, but this one missed making sense by several federal interstate highway miles. Unless one can build one’s own roads, retains the laboratories and expertise necessary for the analysis of one’s food and medicines, doesn’t fly in airplanes, or…no need to go any further down this particular road of course, the proposition so transparently inane it isn’t necessary…then you’re going to have a lot of problems, and not many available solutions.
Conservatives like to claim that government cannot create jobs, only the private sector can. Tell that to IBM, Boeing, or Exxon to name a few government beneficiaries. Government subsidy built the inter-continental railroads, government contracts built the computer industry, government contracts built and almost solely sustain the defense and aerospace business. Whether it is construction of highways, government buildings or anything else that needs to be built with hammers and nails government contracts are awarded to private builders, which then pay their employees with money from government’s coffers, money employees spend to the benefit of innumerable other private businesses, a process central to the nation’s economy. Even those despised bureaucrats and government workers in Washington and across the nation spend their paychecks as consumers on privately sold goods, spending that sustains the earnings of those private businesses patronized. And of course everything from the oil business to big agriculture to banking thrives on direct taxpayer subsidies, incentives, loopholes or taxpayer guarantees.
Conservatives like to complain that government interference “gets in the way” of businesses and that is certainly true. On the other hand, if failure to inspect a building constructed using substantial shortcuts to increase profits means the building will collapse or fall apart, with the resulting dismay and lost earnings for the private business occupying that building, that’s an enormous, and preventable economic waste. We saw how much money and economic growth was lost, a staggering amount, when the real estate, banking and financial sectors were insufficiently regulated over the last decade. While on the individual level a business may feel inconvenienced by any given regulation, in the larger economy government interference has prevented enormous loss and waste, and contributed to greater economic health than would have been the case otherwise.
Similarly, conservatives who regularly claim to be huge proponents of competition should take notice that much of what government does when it intervenes is prevent anti-competitive practices (price-rigging for instance) or monopolistic behavior that effectively eliminates competition. It’s far from uncommon for business and corporate types to boast that they are champions of “competition” while doing everything in their own businesses humanly possible to eliminate any and all competitors, said prizing of theoretical competitiveness apparently only words when the size of their profits is remotely challenged.
As for claims that “government is inefficient,” direct comparisons between administrative costs and overhead in private business and those in government demonstrate government bureaucracy in fact is more efficient than its corporate counterparts. For instance Medicare and Social Security, enormous bureaucracies, have administrative costs in the range of four to six percent. The private insurance industry has administrative costs between ten and fifteen percent. But the myth persists, sloganeered across the airwaves and the generations through conservative propaganda that government is wasteful and private business thrifty. Three words for these clueless propagandists: corporate expense account.
The most glaringly erroneous, stupefyingly dimwitted and extraordinarily insidious element of this propagandized view of government is that government is an all-powerful and controlling force, and that without it these United States would enjoy a balmy spring of release from the iron boot. Of course, this is only the case if one believes that removing the only existing force large enough and powerful enough to countervail, contradict, mitigate and essentially take on the enormous power of corporate power and powerful private interests would make you feel as free as a bird. In other words, if you don’t consider the following important or elemental in your day to day life: credit cards, bank accounts, health insurance, gasoline for your car, or food and commodities traded by commodity markets, utilities that provide heat, cooling, electricity, cable or internet access to name a few, then corporate America has little influence or power over your life at all. I believe the number in the population included in this pool of people does not exceed the two Geico characters living under rocks.
In fact, because government in the modern era is the only force, the only institution large enough and powerful enough to challenge, interdict or to contain the accumulated power over individual lives corporations and powerful private institutions now possess, those corporations and private vested interests and their surrogates in conservative politics persistently seek to demonize and belittle and diminish the power of government, government being the only entity in existence with the equivalent power to balance the extraordinary power corporations and powerful private interests exercise over the lives of America and her citizens.
Conservatives, achieving someting much less than cleverness I am forced to say, claim government is terrible because it is unaccountable, unaccountably believing you will forget how unaccountable corporations and concentrated private power and wealth are. For the the latter are not accountable to individuals or to groups of Americans, or to customers at all, and only marginally to the American government, many of whose elected officials ,as the result of lobbying and campaign donations act to keep the private sector as unaccountable as possible.
In the conservative grand view, you are enslaved when you rely on a government program, say Medicare or Social Security, but are the freest person alive if corporations or Big Businesses are who you answer to for all things critical and necessary in your daily life. If your health insurance company strikes you as fair, responsive, accountable and slavishly devoted to your real needs, the conservative privatized utopia is the place for you. Outside of government, here is who corporate America is accountable to: stockholders. And though this may really blow back your hair in a profoundly shocking manner, I am going to mention it anyhow: it is just possible these stockholders put other agendas ahead of your, or the public’s best interests, or in fact even the slightest consideration for your concerns (See: definition of accountability) when decisions are made.
Conservatives will certainly bellow on till they’re red in the face about government’s lack of accountability. So one needs to ask them: When was the last time there was a democratic election that allowed you to vote out the president and CEO of General Electric? General Motors? The manager of the local branch of Wells Fargo? The head of the credit card division of Bank of America? The operating officer at Time Warner? The board of Pacific Gas and Electric? The managers of any commodity market that trades in speculation on a commodity you may use, for instance food or petroleum? The CEO or stockholders of Aetna, Blue Cross, Harford, or whichever company you have your health insurance with? Now that is unaccountable. Market forces? Do you really believe the cost of your insurance premium, your gasoline or your cable bill is the result of pure supply and demand, rather than the manipulation, fixing of, or total indifference to the forces of supply and demand by the appropriate parties in the private sector? Of course not.
A state of accountability would be one in which the continuation of one’s job or position is in the hands of those whose lives one is affecting, the response of actual people to one’s actual performance. So it’s difficult to imagine what is more accountable than a public servant subject to the process of electoral change or re-election. And day-to-day government is in the hands of individuals (your fellow citizens, friends, neighbors and sometimes family by the way) appointed by or hired by persons directly accountable to the American people and American consumers in direct elections. Totally accountable they certainly aren’t. But accountable, and directly so: indisputably. So when someone tries to shine you on with the propaganda that government power is inimical and dangerous, and the private sector your Fairy Godmother, all munificent, innocuous, solicitous and benign, I encourage you to laugh directly in their face, or perhaps dampen the purveyor of such propaganda with the Diet Coke that comes spewing out of your mouth.