The Anti-Government Movement's Radical Agenda
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Some Americans also have issues with our social safety net programs, but they are usually confined to complaints about welfare payments going to people who do not really need them. In general, most Americans strongly support programs like Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, and the minimum wage. However, many in the anti-government crusade want to get government out of the business of providing this kind of economic security for Americans. For example, some leading conservative intellectuals like Charles Murray don’t just want to cut back on welfare, they want to eliminate it entirely. In his famous book, Losing Ground, he proposed “scrapping” welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps and leaving the poor to be taken care of by friends, churches, and charities.5 Minimum wage and workplace anti-discrimination policies have also come under attack as improper uses of government power. Even unemployment insurance is looked upon with great suspicion by some critics of government. As Ronald Reagan, an anti-government icon, once declared: “Unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders.”6 And he did not think much better of Medicaid, whose recipients he once described as “a faceless mass, waiting for handouts.”7
George W. Bush’s attempts to “reform” Social Security also revealed a deep underlying hostility toward social programs in general. A limited-circulation memo written in January 2005 by Peter Wehner, the director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, was particularly instructive in this regard. He made it clear that an essential part of the privatization plan was to actually reduce benefits and weaken Social Security, and he said that any proposal that didn’t include this was a “bad idea.” More importantly, he revealed how radical the privatization effort really was. “The overhaul of Social Security will be one of the most conservative undertakings of modern times. And if successful, will rank as one of the most significant conservative governing achievements ever.” The ultimate goal of this effort, he concluded, was to “help the nation move away from dependency on government.”8 There is a clear refusal here to realize what most Americans know to be true: that it is sometimes necessary for us to use collective institutions like government to deal with the many serious financial risks and insecurities that are part of living in a modern market economy – risks like unemployment, retirement, sudden illness, and so on.
Getting Rid of Public Schools
Remarkably, some anti-government activists are even against our public schools. For much of our history, public schools have been seen as a vital symbol of our nation’s commitment to equal opportunity for all. But in their zeal to condemn anything and everything governmental, some conservatives have set their sights on greatly reducing or even eliminating public education. As Thomas Johnson of the Future of Freedom Foundation has explained:
Famous supporters of public education include Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Mao Zedong, Mussolini …. The best possible reform that could ever be affected is eliminating completely politicized socialist government schools and replacing them with private, profit-making, and charitable education businesses that offer courses of instruction only too willing customers.9
And it's not only far-out libertarians like Johnson who express these kinds of hostile views of our public schools – these ideas extend into the mainstream of the conservative movement. Conservative luminaries including Milton Friedman, Dinesh D’Souza, Howard Phillips, and Marvin Olasky have publicly endorsed the goal of eliminating public education.10 A story told by Reed Hundt, head of the Federal Communication Commission in the Clinton administration, illustrates just how deep the conservative contempt for public schools can go. He had a meeting with William Bennett, who had been Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, in order to ask him to support a bill in Congress that would have paid for internet access in all classrooms and libraries in the country.
[Bennett] told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools and other forms of private education.11
In contrast to these extremely antagonistic attitudes towards public education, most Americans support and even cherish their local public schools. In a poll, Americans ranked public schools as “the most important public institution in the community” by at least a five-to-one margin over hospitals, churches and other institutions.12 And by 69% to 27%, Americans support “reforming the existing public school system” to “finding an alternative.”13
Getting Rid of Taxes
Taxes are yet another area in which the approach of anti-government activists is much more extreme than that of most Americans. Most of us would like to get rid of taxes that seem clearly unfair – such as the marriage penalty in the federal income tax. And most would agree that changes need to be made when local property taxes become too much of a burden on retirees on a fixed income. But these anti-government conservatives and libertarians aren’t as concerned with making the tax system fairer or more reasonable as they are with simply cutting taxes. They oppose taxes in principle – seeing them as a form of theft that penalizes hard working Americans. Many also believe that severely cutting taxes is the best way to reduce government. For many in the anti-tax movement, their ultimate goal is to get rid of as many taxes as possible, including the federal income tax, capital gains taxes, corporate income taxes, payroll taxes and property taxes. One anti-government Libertarian Party web site made the point quite succinctly: “Where do we stand on taxes? The short answer is we are against them.”14
In enacting a series of massive tax cuts starting in 2001, President Bush and the Republican Congress insisted that they were simply giving the public what they wanted: tax relief. But poll after poll showed that this was not what the public wanted. Surveys at the time found that hardly any Americans thought tax cuts were an important priority and only 5% named taxes as the nation’s “most important problem.”15 And when asked if they preferred a tax cut or to spend that money on “education, the environment, health care, crime fighting, and the military,” 69% of Americans said they preferred to devote the money to these programs. Only 22% favored the tax cuts.16 Clearly, the Republican obsession with continually cutting taxes is greatly out of step the views of most Americans.