The Anti-Government Movement's Radical Agenda

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Rolling Back the Twentieth Century

To sum up, the agenda of the anti-government coalition is a radical one – they do not simply want to reform and improve government; they want to gut it. They fundamentally oppose the basic roles and functions of government in modern society. They believe the government’s power to tax, its ability to enact health, safety, and environmental regulations, and its attempts to redistribute income to provide more economic security are all basically illegitimate activities. They fundamentally oppose the modern idea of government and the role it has come to play in advanced societies. As William Greider has observed, many of the leaders of the anti-government movement feel deeply uncomfortable with the expansion of government power and programs that took place during the New Deal and the Great Society and are nostalgic about earlier times when government played only a very minor role in society.

The movement’s grand ambition is to roll back the twentieth century, quite literally. That is, defenestrate the federal government and reduce its scale and powers to a level well below what it was before the New Deal’s centralization. With that accomplished, movement conservatives envision a restored society in which the prevailing values and power relationships resemble the America that existed around 1900, when William McKinley was President. Governing authority and resources are dispersed from Washington, returned to local levels and also to individuals and private institutions, most notably corporations and religious organizations. The primacy of property rights is re-established over the shared public priorities expressed in government regulation. Above all, private wealth – both enterprises and individuals with higher incomes – are permanently insulated from the progressive claims of the graduated income tax.17

Out of Step with Other Democracies

For much of the twentieth century, most Americans welcomed the growing power of the federal government and its ability to effectively address the serious economic and social problems that people could not solve on their own. In fact, much of that growth came from public demands that the government tackle pressing issues like economic depressions, tainted food, environmental pollution, and unsafe workplaces. But while this more positive view of the state has been fading in the United States, it still remains alive and well in many European countries. The state-hating views of American conservatives seem especially strange when compared with the way most citizens in these other advanced Western countries look at government. T. R. Reid, a reporter who lived in Europe for many years, has observed with some surprise that the term "welfare state" is not a pejorative one there. They don’t say “welfare state” with that sneer in their voice that we usually hear in the States. In fact, he found that most Europeans are very proud of their welfare states and they like to brag about public programs like their universal healthcare systems.18 Typically, Europeans believe that the government should take a much greater responsibility for helping people with their lives than we do here in United States. For example, when asked, "How much responsibility does the government have for seeing to it that everyone who wants a job can have one?", an average of 91% of the citizens in Germany, Great Britain and Italy said that this was either an essential or important responsibility of the government. Ninety-five percent believed that the government had an important or essential responsibility to provide citizens with good medical care; and 89% thought that providing adequate housing was an important or essential responsibility of government.19 Such views must surely make American minimal-government crusaders cringe. Perhaps more surprising, however, is that the anti-government attitudes of American conservative leaders are not only alien to most citizens in other Western countries; they are even out of step with conservative movements in these countries. A passionate hatred of government and the desire to dismantle it is unique to U.S. conservatives. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge work for the British magazine the Economist and have written an insightful history of conservatism in the United States, The Right Nation. One of their central points is how exceptional American conservatism is. “Most Americans still do not realize how extraordinary their brand of conservatism is. …The American Right exhibits a far deeper hostility toward the state than any other modern conservative party. How many European conservatives would display bumper stickers saying ‘I love my country but I hate my government’?”20 The answer, presumably, is very few. Because while conservatives in other countries champion the benefits of the market system and disagree with their liberal opponents over how extensive social programs should be, most do not deny the importance of these programs or that the government has a responsibility to play an active role in meeting the needs of its citizens. So the extreme government bashing that we see here is really an exclusive sport of American conservatives.


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