Getting Government Off Our Backs

Government is so entwined in our lives that many who rail against it don’t even realize that they’re using government programs, Steve Benen argues.  He uses notes the case of a Tea Party leader who rails against socialized medicine even though she’s on Social Security and Medicare.  Steve says that people like this shouldn’t be listened to since, while they may be sincere, they’re “a confused group of misled people.”

My dad was one of these people.

love-country-afraid-governmentHe joined the Army at 18 and stayed in for 20 to earn a retirement pension.  Along the way, the Army helped pay for his GED and associate’s degree.  After a brief stint in retail management, he used the GI Bill to finish college and went back to work for Uncle Sam as a Department of Defense civilian.   He was ultimately medically retired and drew Social Security disability benefits his last few years.

He had a bumper sticker on his truck that said, “I love my country.  It’s the GOVERNMENT I’m afraid of.”

Dad was a bright guy.  He was fully aware that the Defense Department was part of the government.  But, like most people who want a smaller government, he mostly thought of “government” as intrusive regulations, a complicated tax code, social welfare programs, foreign aid, and all of the “bad” things government does. He wasn’t opposed to a large military although, like me, he was skeptical of the nation-building efforts in which it has been primarily engaged over the last two decades.  (Also, unlike me, he supported bringing back the draft.)

As to the charge of cognitive dissonance, it’s pretty easy to justify using the GI Bill or accepting Social Security and Medicare.   After all, they’d been earned and paid for.

Ranting and raving wasn’t his style, so Dad was never going to attend a Tea Party protest or go shout down a Congressman at a town hall meeting.  But he shared the frustrations and political attitudes of those who did.  He’d seen the reach of the Federal government get much longer and more pervasive over the last half century and didn’t like it one bit.  And, aside from the sense that people were having to work further and further into the year just to pay taxes and that basic freedoms were being taken away (he was particularly exorcised over the anti-smoking crackdown but also such things as seat belt and helmet laws) he was frustrated at what he saw as an orchestrated government campaign to change the culture:  marginalizing religion in the public square, limiting gun rights, forcing women into the workforce, pushing multiculturalism, normalizing homosexuality, and so forth.

Steve’s right that it’s almost impossible to reason with movements like this.   But it’s not because they’re comprised mostly of “confused and misled” people.  Rather, it’s because they’re extraordinarily disparate, united only by a strongly held belief that their values and way of life are in danger.  It’s beyond emotional, going to a visceral core.   And it’s almost impossible to talk that away.

FILED UNDER: Government, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Pete says:

    Great post, JJ.

  2. Brian J. says:

    Wow. Just wow.

    I’ve run into a lot of the You’re using some government programs, so if you oppose any government programs, you’re a HYPOCRITE! defenses of the health control legislation and other expansions of government power.

    I did not expect to see that sort of thing here.

  3. Rick DeMent says:

    I’ve run into a lot of the You’re using some government programs, so if you oppose any government programs, you’re a HYPOCRITE!

    Well I don’t know I have made that case that if you have government health care it’s absolutely hypocritical to argue that others shouldn’t have it just because you think that expanding it is just one bridge too far. I mean it’s awful convenient to say… My government health care is jut fine but extending it to anyone else is the end of civilization.

    Then there are those who advocate the end of all entitlements except for the particular one they live on. That’s hypocritical as well ..

    If you are on medicare and are willing to say … you know I’m against socialized medicine and I’m happy to give up my benefits if this program were discontinued(presumably with some reasonable remuneration for money paid into the system) then that is a principled stand, I just don’t see a lot of that.

    And frankly a lot of them are confused and mislead. It’s easy to be against something … very difficult to be for something or to craft policy that most people can live with (also very easy to craft policy that works for us as individuals).

  4. Herb says:

    I did not expect to see that sort of thing here.

    I’m not sure you got the intended meaning of this post. It might be helpful to consider that Mr. Joyner’s Dad recently passed away, that no where in this post does he endorse the view that his Dad was a hypocrite, and indeed, he makes the point that his Dad was neither misled or confused.

    Of course, my dissenting view on that is that there are plenty of Tea Partiers who are, indeed, misled or confused. And plenty of people willing to mislead or confuse them. (Sarah Palin’s death panels is a good example. Eric Cantor’s magic bullet is another.)

    My secondary dissent is that “an orchestrated government campaign to change the culture” doesn’t just come from the left. The right has their own “orchestrated government campaign to change the culture,” too. They don’t call them culture warriors for nothing!

  5. James Joyner says:

    I’ve run into a lot of the You’re using some government programs, so if you oppose any government programs, you’re a HYPOCRITE! defenses of the health control legislation and other expansions of government power.

    I did not expect to see that sort of thing here.

    That’s precisely not my argument. It seems to be Steve Benen’s argument.

    My point is twofold. First, it’s possible to be part of the system and opposed to other parts of the system. Second, it’s possible to be vaguely anti-government for a whole variety of very different reasons. Intellectual libertarianism is, in fact, a very tiny subset of the much larger “small government” movement.

  6. There is no doubt that one can have a far more complex relationship to government than Benen’s post indicates, although I agree with him in part: a lot of people involved in the Tea Party movement seem to ignore the ways in which they themselves benefit from government.

    Indeed, when I read Benen’s post yesterday, I thought about the scene from Life of Brian that you like to note about government and the bit about what have the Romans done for us? Indeed, I have thought of it often during some of the more extreme anti-governments rants from some in the Tea Party movement.

  7. john personna says:

    I have been thinking similar things. I’ve even worked on corny metaphors while I drive .. like “do fish see the ocean in which they swim.” (I’m not proud of that metaphor, I never quite made it work.)

    But it has been one of my old themes that some people can look at our mixed economy (as I said recently, “private cars, public roads”) and declare it “free market.” Any increase in the “public” is “socialism.”

    Why do they do that? I’d really like to understand it, and why now?

    Many consider the racism thing a cheap shot, and if they are non-racist Tea Partiers I feel for them … but I’ve kind of got this feeling that when the history is written 20 years from now, race is going to be a thread.

    Or maybe I’m missing some key link in the story, some reason our mixed economy is simplified to a “free market” on the ropes, with its last defenders.

  8. john personna says:

    Steven, I think “what have the Romans done for us” was one of the greatest bits ever.

  9. Your Dad was confused. If on one hand you believe the state has the right to conscript people into a period of indentured servitude, even deliberately sending them to their death, against their will, and on the other hand you complain about the government’s interference in people’s lives because incomes taxes are too high, then your personal philosophy is grossly inconsistent.

  10. James Joyner says:

    If on one hand you believe the state has the right to conscript people into a period of indentured servitude, even deliberately sending them to their death, against their will, and on the other hand you complain about the government’s interference in people’s lives because incomes taxes are too high, then your personal philosophy is grossly inconsistent.

    Most people are “grossly inconsistent” in their “personal philosophy.” Dad was both a near-absolutist on the rights of private property owners and a believer in duty to country. So, a man should be obligated to serve in the military but the government had no right to take away people’s property for anything but its most essential duties. That’s complex but not indefensible.

  11. Stan says:

    I don’t understand how one can blame the government for the fact that more women are working now than they did in the 50’s. And I am surprised to learn that people pay more in taxes than they used to. I’m not accusing your father of being a hypocrite, but it seems to me that he simply didn’t like the way society was evolving, and he decided to blame everything on government.

  12. James Joyner says:

    I don’t understand how one can blame the government for the fact that more women are working now than they did in the 50’s.

    He thought there was rather significant pressure from the Federal government to spread the message that staying home and being “just” a housewife, tax credits for child care, and all the rest were aimed at breaking down the traditional family.

    And I am surprised to learn that people pay more in taxes than they used to.

    Well, certainly, Americans pay more in taxes than they did decades ago: Government’s much, much bigger and it hasn’t all been financed by borrowing. Partly, though, his own income bracket went up (although never into the very highest brackets) and he resented being punished for it.

  13. Herb says:

    If on one hand you believe the state has the right to conscript people into a period of indentured servitude, even deliberately sending them to their death, against their will, and on the other hand you complain about the government’s interference in people’s lives because incomes taxes are too high, then your personal philosophy is grossly inconsistent.

    Not necessarily…

    The draft wasn’t rendered obsolete by newly enlightened ideals of freedom. Nixon’s the guy who got the ball rolling on that and he’s not known as the most enlightened of fellows. No, the draft was mooted by technological superiority.

    It’s not too outrageous to see how someone from a different generation –for whom the draft would have been the primary method of preserving freedom— would have different views on the subject.

    I’m against the draft myself, but not because I’m afraid of being drafted. I just prefer a professional, highly motivated well-trained military to a bunch of sloppy, gold bricking clock-watchers.

  14. mattt says:

    Benen opens his post with a joke that references the GI Bill and VA. But the context is the current fight against the alleged imposition of socialized medicine by people who enjoy the benefits of Medicare, and the contradiction in views on helath benefits is his main thrust.

    I actually think his suggestion of “cognitive dissonance” is overly generous. Based on my encounters with wannabe tea-partiers there is less ignorance than many would give them “credit” for, and more often an attitude of “I got mine.”

    But there is plenty of ignorance, too. I haven’t seen James follow up on his post from last week on polls revealing tea partiers’ ignorance on tax rates. I think several commenters showed he bent so far backwards to defend indefensible ignorance on the tea-partiers’ (claimed) core issue, that I’m hoping his own health insurance covers chiropractic.

  15. Russ Wellen says:

    This post may be the best explanation of exactly what it is about big government that many people don’t like. I think now I understand what their reservations about government are. Understandable, really.

  16. Steve Plunk says:

    It seems the stereotype of Tea Party members is now one of a government benefit receiving malcontent who has no idea of how government works. That makes it easy to criticize them when you have that to fall back on now doesn’t it?

    The expansion of government health care is troublesome because it is a major policy initiative and will grow a government that many believe is already to big. Tea Party members are smart enough to know the current entitlement programs cannot be undone so it’s practical to settle for stopping expansion of entitlements. Is that hypocritical? Opponents of the Tea Party certainly want to frame it that way.

    Let’s consider this expansion also comes during a time with record budget deficits, a large national debt, and soon to be rising interest rates to finance that debt. The concerns have hit critical mass and prompted a citizen response.

    When dealing with others it sometimes becomes necessary to tailor your communication methods to make the most impact. While polite conversation with a congressman at a town hall might impress upon him your concerns screaming might actually shake him up and get him thinking how angry the constituents are. It’s not just the politicians who know political theater.

    I think we need to understand that sometimes it’s not where we are at that angers but the general direction we are going. If we maintain the current path there are few among us who see good things down the road. That’s worth protesting and that’s not being hypocritical.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    And it’s almost impossible to talk that away.

    As it would appear to be equally impossible to satisfy these people, as many of the changes they are rallying against seem unavoidable…

  18. john personna says:

    This is only me, Steve, but I reject the idea that rational citizens are engaging in conscious “political theater.” I think the under-informed have been mobilized though anger and fear.

  19. mattt says:

    Tea Party members are smart enough to know the current entitlement programs cannot be undone so it’s practical to settle for stopping expansion of entitlements. Is that hypocritical?

    Hypocritical? Not really. But pretty darned convenient.

    You ignore the primary objection of many tea-party opponents of HCR: that it will lead to cuts in Medicare. These folks haven’t conceded that current entitlements can’t be rolled back. In fact, that’s exactly what they’re defending against while at the same time seeking to block benefits for others and cut their own taxes.

  20. According to Rasmussen, 35% of self identified Democrats believe George Bush knew about 9/11 before it happened and another 26% aren’t sure. So spare me the bullshit that the Tea Party people have any special claim on ignorant or uninformed beliefs. You don’t have to know all the specifics of any system to know that something is wrong with it. Most people can tell when something is wrong with their car but few can identify exactly what is wrong with it and fewer still can then correct it themselves.

    This is just malevolent, partisan spin.

  21. john personna says:

    Charles, you can construct a poll to get that 35% based on hard fact:

    The following is a transcript of the August 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing entitled Bin Laden determined to strike in US. Parts of the original document were not made public by the White House for security reasons.

    It’s all the way you ask the question. Did the President know Bin Laden was determined to strike the US?

    So get over that poll.

  22. So George Bush let it happen. Got it.

  23. john personna says:

    What Charles, do you think being ridiculous makes your point?

    There is obviously some subtlety there, and saying “George Bush knew about 9/11 before it happened” would be wrong, but also not the full story.

  24. john personna says:

    BTW, to really get at what people know and what they think, I think a poll would have to ask not one, but two, questions:

    1) Was the President briefed on Bin Laden’s determination to strike in the US?

    2) Was the President aware of the specific plan and timing to strike the World Trade Center on 9/11?

    I’d hope that would let reasonable people say “yes” to “1” and “no” to “2”

  25. steve says:

    I think Benen is largely correct when it comes to the specific issue of health care. The Tea PArty members poll as older. Many of them are on Medicare or almost there. We currently have a system that redistribute wealth to the elderly. (It has also been redistributing wealth to the wealthy, but that is another story.) These people are concerned that HCR will result in some Medicare cuts. It will.

    Medicare Advantage was a gift to the elderly. It costs about 14% more per patient. It was supposed to demonstrate that a profit driven company would provide care at lower costs than a government program. It failed. It needs to be cut back, and it will under the current law.

    Of course, Medicare spending needs to be slowed down even more. So, we have the Advisory Board. Even Ryan’s plan was going to cut Medicare way down, he was just going to use vouchers.

    The sad part is that your father was mostly wrong (on the economics), at least as I understand your writing. The following link to CBO data, there are other sources for this same data, shows that govt. spending, prior to our current crisis, had peaked under Reagan. It had been steadily decreasing until the economy blew up. But, entitlements have been increasing and govt. spending is due to increase if they are not cut. The non-defense discretionary spending, the kind that most people think of as government, has stayed pretty constant.

    Anyone who talks about economic issues should be familiar with this data. (There are newer projections, but this one is fun since it was made before the financial crisis and with the best case assumptions about the tax cuts.)

    http://www.cbo.gov/doc.cfm?index=3521&type=0

  26. john personna says:

    That (excellent) chart does seem at odds with the “feel” about our “direction” doesn’t it?

  27. Wayne says:

    If you pay all your live into Social Security but believe in private accounts, that it should never have been past, or it needs to be change then you can’t take the Social Security benefits or any other benefits otherwise you’re a hypocrite. What a bunch of B.S. logic.

    If you are force to pay for benefits or services then it would be foolish not to take them. That doesn’t mean you can’t try to change the fact of what you are being force to pay for or you think government shouldn’t do away with a wide variety of programs.

    A person that has been or is employed by the Government is different from someone who is not employed by the government and who receive government benefits. To me someone who wants to downside Government even knowing it can cost them their job, is admirable not hypercritical.

  28. john personna says:

    The number of believers in private accounts fell considerably with the last market crash. That’s not surprising given the raw data:

    NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — The percentage of American workers with virtually no retirement savings grew for the third straight year, according to a survey released Tuesday.

    The percentage of workers who said they have less than $10,000 in savings grew to 43% in 2010, from 39% in 2009, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s annual Retirement Confidence Survey. That excludes the value of primary homes and defined-benefit pension plans.

    It’s fantasy to think that privatization would transform the population into not just savers, but savers with good safe portfolios.

  29. sam says:

    I think it was our own Dave Schuler who distilled the essence of the Tea Partiers into “Rent-Seeking Populists”. Sounds about right to me.

  30. A belief in duty is great; the difference is how we deal with the insufficiently duitiful.

    If, as your father believes, the government has the right to lay claim to the whole of your labor, even to the point of having the right to dispose of your life, it’s hard to see his argument for saying that it doesn’t have the right to lay claim to some smaller part of the same.

  31. If I have learned anything here it is that it is so much more fun to call them names than engage their arguments.

  32. TangoMan says:

    If, as your father believes, the government has the right to lay claim to the whole of your labor, even to the point of having the right to dispose of your life, it’s hard to see his argument for saying that it doesn’t have the right to lay claim to some smaller part of the same.

    The crucial difference between the two scenarios is that they serve two different ends. With the draft the citizens are compelled against their will to risk their lives in order to save either the nation as a political entity, or the people from death, dismemberment, and/or enslavement, while the other scenario deals with government taking a portion of one’s earnings in order to give those earnings to another person, usually one who has the same capacity to earn a living.

    The reasons things are done matter more than just the way things are done.

  33. mattt says:

    @ Charles-

    You’re comparing the knowledge level of Democrats who were called up at home by a pollster asking questions they hadn’t prepared for, to tea partiers marching on DC.

    To extend your analogy – many Tea Partiers are like people who can tell something’s wrong with their car’s engine, from the noise or loss of power, but don’t know exactly what….and then proceed to open the hood and bang around randomly with a hammer.

  34. TangoMan says:

    To extend your analogy – many Tea Partiers are like people who can tell something’s wrong with their car’s engine, from the noise or loss of power, but don’t know exactly what….and then proceed to open the hood and bang around randomly with a hammer.

    Funny. Let me play along by extending your analogy, but first, a dose of realism to set the stage:

    The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 52% of U.S. voters believe the average member of the Tea Party movement has a better understanding of the issues facing America today than the average member of Congress. Only 30% believe that those in Congress have a better understanding of the key issues facing the nation.

    So, if TEA Party members are recognizing a problem and popping the hood in order to bang on the engine, what can we say about the leaders and shakers of the Democratic Party, that they put on their war paint, strip off their clothes and perform weird rituals praying to Marx to come down and visit his spirit on the engine to get it to once again work properly.

    If your contention is that the TEA Party members are incompetent for not knowing precisely how to fix the engine, then it’s safe to say that by your standards Democrats are buffoons who can’t even recognize that the source of the problem with the car is a faulty engine rather than the “spirit” leaving the car, thus stopping it from moving.

  35. Wayne says:

    JP
    I am not sure if your post was a response to mine. If so, it sounds like you miss my point.

    The right of the government to claim your labor and\or assets for protection of your country is very different than claiming them in order to give it to someone else. Even the first one should only be done under certain circumstances.

  36. mattt says:

    @Tangoman –

    Or, that poll may show that up to 52% of US voters don’t realize just how misinformed the average tea partier is. Casual observers often mistake confidence for expertise.

  37. TangoMan says:

    Or, that poll may show that up to 52% of US voters don’t realize just how misinformed the average tea partier is. Casual observers often mistake confidence for expertise.

    There certainly is merit to your point that poll respondents are ill-informed, I mean, look at how the voters elected Obama rather than the more experienced and sound team of McCain and Palin.

  38. john personna says:

    Wayne, I was just picking up on that sentence fragment: “If you pay all your live into Social Security but believe in private accounts, […]”

  39. john personna says:

    BTW, Social Security is not just a forced saving system. It is also an annuity-like entity based on an actuarial pool. We pay in part based on average life expectancy. The surplus fund is invested in bonds. Those of us who live shorter lives collect less out of that fund, those of us who live longer collect more. That is a transfer “to someone else.” The alternative is really impossible, that Social Security would demand premiums based on everyone reaching max lifespan (119?), and then I suppose return the surplus to (undeserving 😉 heirs.

  40. Wayne says:

    JP
    If you want to nit-pick hastily written post, knock yourself out.

    We agree then that Social Security is, at least in part, a force transfer of wealth. My point was that if you are “force” to pay for something you disagree with, it is not hypocritical for you to receive those benefits that you paid for. It is not hypocritical to try to change, replace and do away with those programs either. The key word there is “force”.

  41. anjin-san says:

    With the draft the citizens are compelled against their will to risk their lives in order to save either the nation as a political entity, or the people from death, dismemberment, and/or enslavement

    Or, in the case of the Vietnam war, they were compelled to make war upon a people that did not attack us or threaten us…

  42. Herb says:

    Reading this Jonathan Chait post made me think of this line:

    As to the charge of cognitive dissonance, it’s pretty easy to justify using the GI Bill or accepting Social Security and Medicare. After all, they’d been earned and paid for.

    Chait writes:

    But at another level, I’m sure [Michelle Bachmann] actually believes that people like Kitty Rehberg, who benefit from existing government programs, have “earned” their place in a way that potential beneficiaries of health care reform have not.

  43. john personna says:

    Wayne, I agree that we should try to improve the programs we are forced to endure.

    At the same time, I think privatizing Social Security is a bad enough idea that I can drop a few lines about it.

  44. Wayne says:

    JP
    I understand going off on a tangent. No problem. I was just curious if you were one of those that thought a person is a hypocrite if they receive benefits from a program they are force to pay for when they don’t agree with that program or others like it. Don’t you love run on sentences.

  45. john personna says:

    Without calling names … if someone says “universal health-care is Socialist(!) but they shouldn’t cut my Medicare” then … they need to sit down and do some re-thinking.

    At a minimum they should say “I like government run health care, but only in limited cases.”