The Tea Party's Big Government Misconception

There is a difference between a strong government and a "nanny state."

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Responding to my last post, a couple of regular commenters say they have no problem with—I'm paraphrasing here—a federal government that is strong enough to carry out its constitutionally-sanctioned duty of protecting the physical welfare of citizens.

What they don't like is intrusive government.

"One need not be a nanny state to defeat Hitler," asserts Rick from North Dakota.

This is worth parsing, and it gets to the heart of my beef with the Tea Party movement.

Consider, first, the parameters of America's involvement in World War II. It was, in a word, total. It was nanny, pop, mom, and dad. It was government both big and strong. It required the efforts not only of the military but of the civilian workforce. It was the overwhelming focus of the country's domestic industrial might. It required the rationing of gasoline, sugar, meat, rubber—just about every resource and consumer good imaginable. It asked citizens to directly contribute their finances to the war effort.

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And it was superintended, unavoidably, by the only institution capable of doing so: the federal government.

Would I like society to be organizing in such a terrifying fashion during peacetime? Of course not. And it's worth pointing out that the war, and the subsequent long conflict with the Soviet Union, was made necessary by the threat of a despotic foreign government. At the risk of oversimplifying, on the world stage of competing powers, big government begets other big governments.

That said, Rick's point about "strong" vs. "nanny" still needs to be addressed. It's possible not just in theory to imagine an American polity that devotes tremendous resources to defense but lacks a welfare state. As I noted earlier, quoting George Will, the federal government became supreme after the Civil War, but it didn't guarantee a minimum material standard for citizens—the "nanny state" stuff—until FDR.

I happen to think there are good, conservative reasons for maintaining at least a modest welfare state. Going back to Bismarck and the British conservative reformer Disraeli, there's a non-leftist justification for redistributing wealth in a capitalist system: It's the price of social peace. The author Michael Lind has called this concept the "social market contract." Less-well-off citizens will accept inequality in a dynamic economy if there's a modicum of benefits to prevent abject misery.

But back to the point of this post, which is this: Administering transfer payments—the redistribution of wealth—is often one of the least complicated things that the federal government does, requiring simply the collection of a tax and the cutting of a check. It is far, far less intrusive, for example, than the creepy surveillance apparatus that surrounded us even before 9/11.

And it's arguably less intrusive, less "nanny"-like, than what local government does. Think of your interactions with your municipality: It hits you, literally, where you live—the composition of your neighborhood, the dimensions of your house and the lot it sits on, the standards that govern the guts of your house: electricity, plumbing, heating and air-conditioning. It collects taxes on that property to pay for the school your children attend. It collects your trash and yard waste.

By comparison, Nanny doesn't reside in Washington. She's in city hall or the county seat. She's on your school board and sewer board and in the zoning office.

Of course, if you run a business, your interaction with government will rise up the food chain, what with labor laws, environmental regulation, etc. But I don't see, even in the Tea Party movement, significant agitation for these things to go away (with the exception of global warming and the specter of cap-and-trade).

Boiled down, the Tea Party movement is mad about one thing in particular: the confiscation of wealth—more than that, the realization that the federal government is going to be doing more of it in the near future.

I don't like paying taxes any more than the next Tea Partyer. My point here is simply to say that the moral implications of progressive taxation have almost nothing to do with the size of government.

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