Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Dichotomy And The Lie

Liberals are big government. Conservatives are small government. This dichotomy is widely propounded in the media, accepted on face value by conservatives and liberals alike. When conservative administrations push big government legislation and policies, liberals proclaim them hypocrites while conservatives accuse them of treason against traditional conservative values.

In the latest big v. small government battle, former Attorney General John Ashcroft's attempted nullification of Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law has been found unconstitutional and the law upheld as constitutional in a 6-3 decision by the Supreme Court, despite the Bush administration's opposition. According to the court, Ashcroft's directive was a violation of the traditional separation of powers between the federal government and the states.

Responses to this decision and the administration's stance have called up the big government/small government dichotomy that supposedly embodies the liberal/conservative divide and has been fodder for ever so many political campaigns of years past. In this week's Newsweek, conservative columnist George F. Will has come out in support of the court's decision and in opposition to the administration's stance on the basis of the "traditional conservative values" of states' rights and small government. In a skillful display of buck-passing, Will claimed that the dissent by the court's three most conservative justices -- Scalia, Thomas, and the new Chief Justice Roberts -- "could be characterized as liberal -- judicial activism favoring the federal government's aggrandizement of its power at the expense of federalism." Will also asks, "So, what is conservative about conservatives' complaints about the court's decision?"

Considering how integral this dichotomy has become to modern political debate, it would be interesting, one would assume, if it were to be, I don't know, a big fat lie. Guess what? It is. Policy standpoints and political ideals are not static. What is liberal in one time period or circumstance would be conservative in another and vice versa. Some standard attributes of the two schools of thought remain static over time, but those are limited.

For instance, consider the very founding moment of our democracy, when the Continental Congress and prominent citizens were debating the nature of the new federal government. It was the liberals who wanted the federal government to be small, because they associated a "big" or strong federal government with monarchy and oppression. Conservatives of the day wanted the federal government to be "big" or strong because they felt that the government should work to further the interests of the wealthy minority and to protect this minority from the "unwashed masses," not that the liberals had a much better view of those masses.

Throughout history, each side has "flip-flopped" many times, wanting either a big or small government depending on which would fit their ideals and agenda at the time or for that particular issue. Conservatives wanted a strong federal government to send in the troops to break labor strikes so that wealthy industrialists could go back to making money. They wanted a weak government to stay out of their business decisions, rather than regulating industry in the name of labor or consumer rights. Liberals wanted a big government to ensure workplace protections and to regulate food quality. They wanted a small government to stay out of local labor disputes.

In our modern times, liberals have been more likely to call for a big government to protect civil liberties, to ensure equal opportunity, to create a safety net against the instabilities of the marketplace, and to protect citizens against oppression by the states. They've wanted a small government to stay out of what they consider personal affairs: reproductive rights, assisted suicide, end-of-life decisions, religion, etc.

Conservatives on the other hand, have wanted a small government to deregulate industry and to not intefere with the states' decisions to legalize segregation, ban abortion, or legislate "morality." They've wanted a big government to bail out major industries, promote industry-friendly trade policies, and control dissent.

Often, as in the case with Will's stance on the court's Oregon decision, a liberal and a conservative can come to the same conclusion for different reasons. Will and some other conservatives take the states' rights stance to support the decision and oppose the administration's position. Liberals are in favor of the decision and against the administration's position, because they want the government to stay out of "end-of-life" decisions, which are deemed a private matter. Both are small government positions taken for two very different reasons.

As Will's article proves, conservatives can disagree on the same decision based on their own personal view. On one side, the administration's stance is an attack on states' rights. On the other, the law violates the "morality" of the religious right and other conservatives. The size of the government is not the only "conservative" consideration, instead this is a battle of competing conservative values. Liberalism has nothing to do with it.

So, why the lie? Because it has worked in the past and continues to work now, mainly for the conservatives. The lie allows them to sell themselves as the party of personal responsibility, while the other guy is "stealing" your tax dollars to pay for "welfare queens," "racial quotas," and "queers." It also allows them to pander to small-town prejudices. After all, you know what's right for your community, not those guys in Washington. And finally, when a conservative administration gets caught in its "big government" ways or conservative justices vote against a decision they like, it can be "characterized as liberal." The lie is a convenient weapon in the conservative arsenal. It's time that we disarm them once and for all.

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