Why Government Becomes the Scapegoat

Conservatives and business like to blame government for most of the problems in society. They must scapegoat government in order to distract public attention from the real causes of many of our social and economic problems.

In the summer of 2011, the U.S. economy was still suffering from the lingering effects of the Great Recession that  began in 2008.  Economic growth was anemic, a double dip recession was a very real possibility, and unemployment remained disturbingly high.  While serious analysts debated about how to best revive the economy, Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives came up with a novel approach to this problem: they passed a bill that curtailed thirty-nine environmental regulations. As Rep. Mike Simpson explained:  "Many of us believe that overregulation by the EPA is at the heart of our stalled economy."1  Not be be outdone, Rep. Michelle Bachmann came up with her own pet theory about how the government had to be the cause of our economic woes.  She announced that health care reform was the reason we had such high unemployment.  She seemed to forget that the major components of that bill were not scheduled to take effect for several years.

These examples of bizarre reasoning should really have surprised no one.  They are typical of what has become an ongoing and central political strategy of anti-government conservatives: to blame the government for just about every problem we have as a society. This idea has always been popular in conservative circles, but it received a major boost from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural addressed in which he famously quipped that “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” It was an argument that resonated deeply with most conservatives, and they have engaged in a continuous campaign to make the government the scapegoat for virtually all of society’s ills.

This article will reveal exactly what is wrong with this effort to use government as a scapegoat.  It will first show that government policy is usually not the cause of our country’s problems. Second, it will answer an intriguing question: why do conservatives and the business community continually insist on blaming government even when their arguments make very little sense? The answer, it turns out, has to do with the way that this scapegoating serves to distract Americans from the real causes of their problems.

The “Blame Government” Strategy

Using the government as a universal scapegoat is very clever political strategy on the part of conservatives. It plays directly into a traditional American distrust of government. And if people can be convinced that “the real problem in the United States is the same one being recognized all over the world: too much government,” then little else need be said to get them to support reducing government.2 And it seems that there are certainly many Americans who are willing to buy this “blaming government” argument. One poll found that 70 percent of Americans believe that “government creates more problems than it solves.”3 And another found that a very large majority of Americans (71%) blame government for stagnant wages.To the extent that people can be made to believe such things, the easier it becomes for anti-state conservatives to reduce government. It just makes common sense to try to reduce the cause of your problems, doesn’t it?

Now there is no denying that sometimes government policies cause problems or make the problems they are addressing worse. Given thousands of policies, inevitably some of them will fail in this way. A good example of this is our federal “War on Drugs” policy. Many political commentators on both the left and right have now concluded that approaching drugs as a crime problem and relying on police efforts to solve it has not worked well. Indeed, this approach has had a lot of unintentional and bad consequences: it has created a more lucrative black market in drugs, increased drug-related violence and crime, and filled our prisons to overflowing with drug users and small-time dealers. You could make a good case that this drug policy has created more problems that it has solved – which is exactly why most other Western countries have abandoned it in favor of an approach that emphasizes decriminalization and drug treatment programs. But such policies failures are hardly evidence that “government is the problem.” They don’t indicate that government is flawed, just that particular policies are flawed. And they don’t mean that we should have less government, just that we need different and better policies in some areas.

Besides, policy failures like these are not really what conservatives are getting at when they say the government is the problem. What they mean is that misguided government policies are actually causing many of our social and economic problems. Is the economy stagnant? It is because of government over-regulation of business. Are you having trouble paying your bills or sending your children to college on your current wages? It is because government takes so much of your salary in taxes. Concerned about the persistent level of poverty in this country? It is due to overly generous welfare programs that make government handouts more profitable than working. Are your kids misbehaving and defying authority? It’s the fault of the public schools for not teaching them the right values. You didn’t get that job or that promotion? It is probably the fault of government promoted affirmative action programs. Upset about the rising divorce rate and the continuing demise of the traditional family? It’s because government has made divorce too easy. Are you worried about promiscuity among young people and teenage pregnancy? Blame the sex education programs in our public schools. Do you not have enough money for retirement? It’s the fault of government for not letting you invest your Social Security money in the stock market. Did your job go overseas? It’s because your local government didn’t do enough to keep the business in your city. And so on. For many conservatives, government has become a one-size fits-all explanation that can be stretched to fit just about every problem in this country.

 

The Big Lie

The main problem with this blame-the-government tactic – and with all attempts at scapegoating – is that it is based on a distorted vision of reality. The reality of government is exactly the opposite of what conservatives contend: it is rarely the cause of societal problems and typically functions as a solution to problems. As we saw in another article on this site, “The Forgotten Achievements of Government,” modern American government has taken on a series of large and difficult problems and has in most cases made significant progress in addressing them. And there is actually little evidence that the government is the direct cause of most of the serious social and economic problems we face as a nation. This is why one political commentator, Charles Noble, has called the conservative blame-the-government campaign “the big lie.”

Some of these lies about government are not even very plausible. In the mad rush by anti-state conservatives to blame government for everything, reason and common sense are often thrown out the window. Witness, for example, Reagan’s 1983 confident pronouncement that "We think there is a parallel between federal involvement in education and the decline in profit over recent years."5 No one has yet to make much sense out of this contention.

Other government critics have even tried to blame it for our many environmental problems. The official position of the libertarian Future of Freedom Foundation makes it perfectly clear where they think the fault lies: “Governments are the great destroyers of the environment. In fact, most environmental problems can be traced to public, not private, ownership of resources.”6 And Dick Armey has written that our current health care crisis is entirely the fault of federal tax policy and programs like Medicare and Medicaid. He suggests that if only the government would get out of the way then private health insurers would make sure that nearly everyone, including the poor and elderly, had affordable health insurance – and the cost of health care would be lowered in the process.7 Clearly, no one but a hard-core, right-wing government hater would put much credence to any of these bizarre theories.

But while many of these conservative charges against government are easily dismissed, not all of them are. Some of their accusations have the semblance of plausibility and are taken seriously by many people in the public and the press – and these demand a more detailed refutation. Of course there is not enough room in this article to take on all of these blame-the-government theories – but let’s take a look at one of them. Let’s consider a charge against the government that conservatives believe is particularly strong – where they are convinced that they are right about government being at fault and where they have successfully convinced many others of this as well. It is the contention that misguided government policies are one of the main reasons so many people remain poor in this country.

Does Welfare Cause Poverty?

Poverty has been a remarkably persistent problem in our society. In 1970, the poverty rate was 12.6 percent and in 2008 it was 13.2 percent. So why won’t this problem go away?  Most conservatives have put the blame on government policies. In 1984, Charles Murray published Losing Ground in which he argued that welfare policies, while intended to alleviate poverty, have in fact just made it worse. Welfare payments were so high that they discouraged people from getting jobs. It became economically beneficial to stay on welfare rather than to take a low paying job. Overly generous welfare payments were making people dependent on these programs and trapping them in poverty. His solution: get rid of the major source of the problem. Cut back drastically on welfare, thus forcing people to get jobs and work their way out of poverty.

When the Republicans took over Congress in the mid-1990s, one of their first priorities was to “reform welfare” along these lines. In a landmark 1996 bill, welfare was declared to be no longer an entitlement, and strict time limits and work requirements were imposed on recipients – all designed to discourage people from staying on welfare and forcing them onto the job market. This legislation has come to be celebrated by conservatives as one of the most successful policies coming out of that period. They point out that between 1996 and 2003, the number of people on the welfare rolls dropped by over 60%.

This is pretty impressive. But unfortunately, the effect of this reduction of the welfare rolls on the poverty level was not what Republicans had predicted. If welfare was actually a major cause of persistent poverty, then we should have also seen a dramatic decrease in poverty as millions of people were forced off welfare and onto the job market. But this is precisely what did not happen. The poverty rate did not fall by 60% or 50%. Not even by 40% or 30%. Not by 20%, nor even by 10%. It fell by a measly 8% -- from 13.7% to 12.5% from 1996 to 2003.

How can this be explained? It is simple. Conservatives were wrong about poverty being largely caused by government welfare programs. First, they ignored the fact that most poor people aren’t even on welfare – and that many of them work already. Second, as many scholars of poverty have pointed out, the major causes of poverty in this country are mostly in the economic system. Most people are poor for two reasons: (1) there is a chronic lack of jobs, and (2) many low-level jobs pay wages below the poverty level.

If you can’t get a job, your chances of being poor are quite high. And there is a persistent lack of full-time jobs in our economy. The unemployment rate has traditionally hovered around the 5% to 7% in the U.S. – and of course it is much higher during recessions. But this does not count those who have become so discouraged they are no longer searching for jobs. Moreover, it has been estimated that unemployment would have to fall to around 2% for there to be enough jobs for everyone who wants one.8 So chronic unemployment in our economy remains one of the main causes of poverty.9

But beyond the obstacle of lack of jobs, there is the problem of the quality of jobs that many people do get – and that mire them in poverty. Many workers are trapped in part-time or part-year jobs that do not pay enough to raise them out of poverty. Millions more work at full-time jobs that pay wages so low that they also remain poor. An embarrassing large percentage of American workers, at least 25 percent, receive wages that do not allow their families to enjoy a decent standard of living. One poverty researcher, Mark Rank, found that almost a third of heads of families in the workforce in 1999, in the midst of a strong economy, earned less than $10 an hour, barely enough for a full-time worker to maintain a family of four above the official poverty line.10 In terms of poverty, then, the basic problem has been the chronic inability of our economy to provide the kinds of employment opportunities necessary for people to work their way above the poverty line. As Gordon Lafer has concluded: “There simply are not enough decently paying jobs for the number of people who need them."11

Given the real causes of poverty in this country are located in the economy, it is not hard to see why the Republican effort to slash government welfare rolls has had little impact on this problem. Since Republican lawmakers had the wrong diagnosis of the poverty problem, their policy prescription was misguided as well. Kicking people off of welfare does nothing to create the additional jobs or the better paying jobs that would actually enable people to escape poverty. Interestingly, poverty rates did dip a bit during the economic boom of the late 1990s, when unemployment declined and wages rose a bit. But since 2000, a sputtering economy has meant that the poverty rate has gone back up every year – ballooning to 14.3% in 2009, a result of the severe economic recession that began in 2008. This is just another indication that it is the failures of our economic system, not government welfare policies, that are at the heart of our continuing poverty problems.12

  

  Why Conservatives Must Scapegoat Government

While the “welfare-causes-poverty” theory was completely mistaken, it at least had some semblance of plausibility about it. But as we saw earlier, many of the charges that “government is the problem” are not only untrue; they are hardly plausible at all. Who in their right mind would believe, for instance, that the government is the main cause of environmental problems? But if this is the case, why do anti-government conservatives insist on making so many of these kinds of questionable arguments? The answer is not necessarily obvious. It is not just that they want to take every possible opportunity to criticize government. Something else is also going on here. To fully understand what it is, you need to understand the underlying political purpose of scapegoating. Scapegoating involves more than blaming an innocent group for society’s problems. It also functions to distract attention away from the real causes of these problems – and that is what is so important for many anti-government conservatives. That is the reason they must engage in the scapegoating of government, no matter how implausible their arguments. Because to acknowledge the real causes of many of our social and economic problems would simply be too threatening to their ideology and interests.

Ordinary Americans are facing an ever increasing number of financial and economic difficulties: their wages have stagnated, many people have little money for retirement, jobs have been downsized and outsourced, rising costs have put college out of reach for many, the gap between rich and poor has increased, health care costs have continued to rise for millions, and so on. And all of this was before the recent deep recession. The American dream just isn’t what it used to be; and faced with these mounting difficulties and risks, many Americans are anxious and angry. And they are looking for someone to take it out on. But the problem for conservatives is this: the causes of virtually all of the serious problems just mentioned are located in the private sector. The workings of the free market and the decisions of business leaders are largely responsible for low wages, high medical costs, increasing economic inequality, stock market crashes, and so on. These are some of the downsides of a modern capitalist market economy. But of course conservatives cannot admit this. They must find a scapegoat on which to deflect this public anger – and government is the perfect one.

Increasingly, most anti-government activists have embraced a kind of “market fundamentalism.” They have a blind faith in the perfection of the market and a strong belief that if markets are left alone, they will solve most problems and produce the best of all possible worlds. So these people desperately need someone or something else they can blame for the economic problems being experienced by many Americans. They have to blame government, because the alternative – admitting to the imperfections of market capitalism – is unthinkable. That is why they are forced to try to blame virtually all of society’s problems on government – no matter how absurd and how unfounded most of these accusations actually are. This seemingly irrational display on the part of free-market conservatives actually begins to make more sense once we realize that they really have no choice. Once they are committed to believe in the perfection of the market, they must also then believe that the government is the source of our problems. So it is not just that they want to blame government for our problems; they have to blame government, no matter how ridiculous this might be in many cases.

Why Business Must Scapegoat Government

Free-market conservatives must scapegoat government in order to protect their ideological illusions. But the business community has a very different reason for doing it – they need to protect their own economic interests, their own bottom lines. If business could not get us to blame government for our economic difficulties, then we would be much more likely to turn our anger toward them. The last thing businesses need is an increasing number of Americans pointing their fingers at them and the free-market economy as the source of their problems. This would inevitably lead to demands that the government do something to address these problems – and these government solutions would in many cases restrict the freedom of businesses and hurt their profits.

Consider the public debate that took place after the financial crisis that began in 2008. Business was unable to blame government for the mortgage loan mess and the resulting economic meltdown. So public discussion focused on what was wrong with the financial system and the malfeasance of financial companies. Many people aimed their anger at Wall Street, and there was a great deal of resentment about the enormous corporate profits and huge executive bonuses that were being amassed as these institutions drove the economy to the brink of ruin. There was talk about limiting executive compensation and reining in the speculative business model that brought millions in profits to these financial firms.

Imagine if the same shift in public discussion were to happen with other economic problems – say with poverty and low wages. What if the target for people’s wrath became the private sector and companies like Wal-Mart that continue to prosper by paying their workers low wages, denying them benefits, and preventing unionization? The public would be more likely to band together politically to demand legislation that would ensure that all people be paid a living wage or that all workers be free to unionize. But this is precisely the kind of political development that many companies would find very threatening. So to deflect criticisms and protect their bottom lines, businesses have an incredibly strong motivation to blame government for economic problems that would otherwise end up on their doorstep.

The 800-Pound Capitalist Gorilla in the Living Room

Just to be clear: I am not suggesting that all of America’s problems are caused by free-market capitalism. Nor do I want to substitute capitalism for government as a public scapegoat. Clearly many of our problems – including terrorism, teen pregnancy, drugs, AIDS, and so on – are not the fault of the market. And certainly misguided government policies do at times make problems worse rather than better. But all of this should not obscure the fact we do suffer from a substantial number of serious problems that are caused or exacerbated by the workings of our free-market economy. If we look at capitalism objectively, we see an economic system with enormous economic advantages – incredible productivity, enormous wealth generation, great economic efficiency, and high degrees of technological innovation – but we also see a system with large numbers of limitations and disadvantages. Many of the built-in problems of capitalism were discussed in some detail in another article on this website, “Capitalism Requires Government.” A short list includes economic bubbles, environmental pollution, uncontrolled resource depletion, high degrees of wage and wealth inequality, poverty, economic depressions, abuses of corporate power, unsafe workplaces, dangerous products, monopoly and price-fixing, etc. This doesn’t mean that capitalism is bad and that we should get rid of it; it just means that unrestrained capitalism is an imperfect system that creates a great deal of problems that we must deal with – usually through government.

But this is exactly what many conservatives do not want to admit. Free market capitalism has become the 800-pound gorilla in our living room that they are desperately trying to ignore. The critical discussion about financial markets that followed the economic meltdown of 2008 is a perfect example of what conservatives and the business community want to avoid. Many political pundits and commentators began to question the value of unregulated financial markets and laissez-faire capitalism itself. There was talk of adopting a more European approach where there are much more extensive public controls over markets and business. However, if conservatives can keep people convinced that government is really the cause of most of our economic problems, then these kinds of disturbing discussions about the problematic nature of our economic system would not have to take place. Business can go on as usual. What gorilla?

 

But Why Do We Believe This Stuff?

It is easy enough to understand why free-market fundamentalists and business interests believe that “government is the problem” – it is in their ideological and economic interests to do so. But why do we believe it? Why do so many average, non-ideological Americans accept these arguments – arguments that often make very little sense? Polls show, as noted earlier, that a very large majority of Americans (71%) blame government for stagnant wages – a problem that clearly has it causes in the private sector, not the government.13 It would make much more sense for those angry about stagnant wages to focus their attention on businesses who continue to prosper by paying their workers low wages and who refuse to let their employees unionize.

Or consider the issue of globalization and other long-term changes in our economy. The political scientist Joseph Nye, Jr. has noted that many of these changes are causing problems for an increasing number of Americans, even many in the middle-class. As problems like increased job insecurity, lower wages, downsizing, job stress, and higher unemployment have multiplied, many people seem determined to blame government for these things. As Nye explains:

Many of the people being laid off today are middle-class holders of white-collar jobs – something that was not as prevalent in the past. We are seeing the “democratization of insecurity.” This produces a “politics of the anxious middle.” In the long run the country may profit from this creative destruction, but in the interim people feel insecure and anxious and then blame the government rather than the deeper economic and historical forces.14

Susan Tolchin has noticed the very same phenomenon: “Today, when middle managers and blue-collar workers lose their jobs, they blame government even though, when pressed, they cannot think of what specific role government played in influencing decisions by Xerox, or Mobil, or IMB to downsize their workforces or move factories to Mexico.”15  So as financial problems and anxieties rise for many Americans, instead of getting angry with businesses or capitalism, they get angry with government. But why is this so? Why do so many Americans – even those who are not conservative – take their anger out on government when it is not the cause of many of their problems?

Powerlessness and Kicking the Dog of Government

The main reason that the public tends to go along with the right’s efforts to scapegoat government is the sense of powerlessness that most people feel when it comes to trying to control what is going on in the private sector. Many people believe they have little or no influence over business decisions or the workings of the market economy. This creates the conditions for the emergence of what psychologists call “displacement.” Displacement is a psychological defense mechanism in which feelings of anger and frustration are displaced or redirected from the real causes of those feelings onto an innocent third party. The typical example is a man who feels harassed by his boss at work, who then comes home and yells at his wife. The worker is powerless to take his frustrations out on his boss, so he redirects it at another person over which he has some power.

This is exactly what often happens when citizens are confronted with serious problems over which they feel they have little or no control – they take their frustrations out on government and officials over which they have at least some control. Take the deeper social forces at work in the family. Divorce rates are up and traditional families are on the wane. Yet there is little that people can do about these larger social changes, so they turn to blaming government officials and schools for not emphasizing “family values.”

But again, it is especially when people are confronted with economic problems that they tend to feel powerless to respond. It is not a coincidence that the classic example of displacement involves a man who feels unable to directly address problems in his workplace and so takes it out on his family at home. People feel that there is little they can do about economic problems – such a low wages, joblessness, boring work, rising health care costs, loss of pensions, etc. – that are generated in the private sector. Even though they often have some idea that these problems are caused by decisions made in the economic system, they also realize that they have no power to directly affect those decisions. So they tend to take it out on a group over which they do have some power – politicians and the government. These officials can at least be booted out of office. Blaming government is a way for the public to express their anger and resentment and to act upon it – even if the target is ultimately the wrong one.

Susan Tolchin remarked on this process in her book, The Angry American. She noted that people concerned about the loss of family farms often tend to direct their anger at government and blame land-use regulations such as those designed to protect wetlands.

Why blame the government? Far more family farms are gobbled up by the forces of agribusiness, timber, and mining interests than by wetlands legislation. Why isn’t Weyerhauser as tempting a target as the Interior Department? Probably because people can do something about government, whereas it is virtually impossible to vote out the chairman of the board or change corporate policies.

Living in a capitalist society, we often have little control of what is happening in the private sector. So we take our frustrations out on the public sector. Ironically, of course, we take them out on the very public institutions that have enough power to actually allow us to exert some more democratic control over the private sector decisions and the market forces that shape so much of our lives. But if we are busy blaming government, we are less likely to think about how we could use this form of collective power to make private sector decision makers more accountable to the public.

 

A New Acceptable Form of Scapegoating

Scapegoating is certainly nothing new in American politics. It has been particularly common among extreme right-wing populist groups throughout our history. The Know Nothings of the 19th century heaped blame on Catholics and immigrants for society’s problems. In the twentieth century, the Ku Klux Klan pointed the finger at blacks and Jews. Today, instead of targeting and demonizing a particular religious or ethnic group, the target has often become politicians, bureaucrats, judges and the institutions of government itself.

This new target has a number of advantages for conservatives. First, it plays on traditional American distrust of government and politicians. Second, and more importantly, blaming the government seems to be a more sanitized and acceptable form of scapegoating. Those who do it cannot be charged with being racist or xenophobic. Most people today would not tolerate an effort to make racial or religious groups the scapegoats for society’s problems. But many are willing to stand by as the very same vicious tactic is used against government officials and politicians. This “sanitizing” of scapegoating has allowed it to become more widespread. This is the other thing that is new about this kind of political scapegoating – it has gone mainstream. This tactic is no longer limited to ultra right-wing kooks, but is now used by a major political party and by large numbers of average Americans. Targeting government has become the political witch-hunt that the whole family can enjoy.

The Mobilization of Hatred

But while targeting government may seem like a less pernicious form of scapegoating, it is not. It is still a malicious, misleading, and destructive process. As Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have explained, scapegoating is not a dispassionate attempt to understand the real sources of society’s problems, but a tactic that inevitably relies on the encouragement and exploitation of dangerous emotions. “Scapegoating [is] the social process whereby the hostility and grievances of an angry, frustrated group are directed away from the real causes of a social problem onto a target group demonized as malevolent wrongdoers.”16 Anger and demonization are in integral part of any scapegoating strategy. It relies on the mobilization of popular hatred against its target. You can see this in the kind of inflammatory rhetoric used by right-wing pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and others, when they attack government. They do not simply argue that certain policies are bad, they also try to demonize the policymakers, especially liberal, pro-government politicians. They vilify these government officials as “idiots,” “slime balls,” “Nazis,” “communists,” “traitors,” and “tyrants.”  Sometimes the demonization is quite literal, as when liberal politicians are referred to as “evil leaders,” “agents of the devil,” and people “in league with the Antichrist.” The clear intention of this kind of talk is to fan the flames of anger, resentment, and hatred. Most Americans would not stand for it if this same kind of vicious language was aimed at a racial or religious group – if, for example, Jews were constantly disparaged as “idiots,” “traitors” or “agents of the devil.” But when these terms of vilification are aimed at government officials, many people simply turn a blind eye. That has to stop – we must oppose scapegoating and demonization no matter what group it is being aimed at.

The politics of hatred is a dangerous politics. It breeds irrationality and ultimately carries with it the threat of violence. We need not look too far to find examples of this violence. When President Clinton was elected in the 1992, the Republicans ramped up their virulent verbal attacks on government. Not long after, in 1995, two men associated with an extremist militia movement chose to act on their fears of government. The target of their political rage was the federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. They denoted a bomb that killed over 100 government employees and many of their children.

In recent years, we again have seen conservatives intentionally encouraging more hatred and resentment against government. Not surprisingly, death threats leveled at President Obama increased by 400% over those aimed at President Bush. And there have been incidents of violence aimed at government officials. In 2009, Richard Poplawski killed three police officers in a paranoid fit about what he thought were President Obama’s anti-gun plans. In 2010, John Patrick Bedell, a rabidly anti-government libertarian, shot two police officers outside the Pentagon. Then in 2011, Jared Lee Loughner shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson Arizona. Six people were killed, including a federal judge and a child. Republicans and Tea Party supporters were quick to argue that Loughner was simply a disturbed and paranoid individual and these murders had nothing to do with politics. But clearly there is a pattern here. Anti-government forces have actively encouraged paranoia about government. They argued that health care reform would create “death panels” that would kill innocent Americans. They warned that the government would soon be invading people’s homes to seize their guns. Some suggested that Obama was the “anti-Christ,” and others maintained that he wanted to establish a communist or fascist dictatorship in this country. When such paranoid fantasies are being promoted by elements of the political right, it gives disturbed people a ready target for their own paranoia. Loughner may have been living in his own fantasy world, but it was informed by the real world of anti-government activists who were feeding his political hallucinations.

Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

Ultimately, however, the biggest problem with scapegoating government is that it makes it much harder to solve our pressing social and economic problems. Whipping up feelings of anger and resentment against the government only encourages irrational thinking and distracts us from understanding the real causes of our problems. As the hatred of government grows, it pushes out reason and common sense. People caught up in these powerful emotions rarely stop to think clearly about whether government is really to blame or to consider alternative causes of our problems.

And when blaming government obscures the real sources of our problems, this makes it much more difficult to develop effective solutions. We will never have a more effective approach to lowering our poverty rate, for example, if we persist in the delusion that government policies are what are keeping people poor. And finally, scapegoating government not only distracts us from developing better solutions to our problems, it also works to delegitimize the only institutions that are large enough and powerful enough to successfully take on many of these social and economic problems. Blindly accepting the idea that “government is the problem” only undermines and weakens the very democratic political institutions that we must rely on to actually develop and implement the solutions we need. We are just shooting ourselves in the foot.

*************

For what we can do to fight this scapegoating and promote a more realistic and positive view of government, see A Pro-Government Campaign.


1. Leslie Kaufman, "Republicans Seek Big Cuts in Environmental Rules," The New York Times, July 27, 2011.

2. David Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer (New York: Free Press, 1997) p. 12.

3. Derek Bok, The Trouble with Government (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 43.

4. Cheryl Simrell King and Camilla Stivers, Government is Us (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998) p. 24.

5. President Ronald Reagan, quoted in USA Today, April 26, 1983

6. The Future of Freedom Foundation, “What is Libertarianism?” http://www.fff.org/aboutUs/whatIs.asp August 9, 2005.

7. Dick Armey, The Freedom Revolution. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1995) p. 212-213.

8. Philip Harvey, “Combating Joblessness: An Analysis of the Principal Strategies That Have Influenced the Development of American Employment and Social Welfare Law During the 20th Century,” Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 21 (2000), pp. 679n3, 682, 705-709.

9. Timothy Bartik, “Poverty, Jobs, and Subsidized Employment,” Challenge 45 (No. 3, May-June, 2002), pp. 100-111.

10. Mark Robert Rank, One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 59.

11. Gordon Lafer, The Job Training Charade, (New York: ILR Press, August 31, 2004) p. 3.

12. The economic causes of poverty also explain why liberal anti-poverty programs have failed to make much of a dent in anti-poverty rates. Welfare and food stamps do nothing to increase the number of jobs available to the poor or to raise the wages of those jobs. In this sense, they were not intended to fix the problem of poverty, only to lessen the suffering of those who were poor. And in this effort they were very successful.

13. Cheryl Simrell King and Camilla Stivers, Government is Us (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998) p. 24.

14. Joseph Nye, Jr., et al, editors, Why People Don’t Trust Government (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 12.

15. Cited in King, p. 24.

16. Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right Wing Populism in America (New York: The Guilford Press, 2000), p. 8.