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Why Government Becomes the Scapegoat

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  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?


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