Politics shouldn’t matter this much
When I was growing up, one of the first things I learned was that voting wasn’t just a right, but our obligation as citizens.
We are bombarded by entreaties to vote. Political ads are everywhere. Undecided voters are ridiculed (how could you NOT have an opinion by now?). Cable news channels garner millions of viewers with political programming.
Political passions have been running especially high since at least 2000, when George W. Bush was elected with a split between the Electoral College and the still-close popular vote.
None of this is healthy for America.
I am not referring so much to the partisanship (partisanship is a constant, not a variable, in politics). Politics has always been a team sport, and the heady days of bipartisan compromise exist more in the fevered dreams of “moderates” than in any reality most of us have experienced. Perhaps in the days of Eisenhower (I wasn’t alive then), but I grew up in a household of Nixon haters, and to this day my parents spit Nixon’s name out and refer to him as “evil.”
What is different today is that politics matter much more than they did decades ago.
Local politics in the big cities always mattered, of course. Big city machines directed resources in ways that could change people’s lives.
But national politics, except in times of war, was really a sideshow. Aside from national defense, the federal government just wasn’t that powerful a force in our daily lives. Sure, money was spent on roads and infrastructure, but hardly anything else. Take a look at any chart of federal spending over time and the pattern is clear. Until recently, the federal government wasn’t a factor in the economy, except in wartime.
In my judgment that was a very good thing, and one of the most important factors in making America great.
To give you an idea of the scale of change in recent years, consider these facts: federal spending as a percentage of GDP has quintupled since 1930. Real per capita spending has risen hundreds of times since 1912.
The federal government commands 23 percent of gross domestic product. In 1940, after the New Deal was firmly ensconced, it was less than 10 percent. In 1930 it was a little over 4 percent. In 1912 it was 2.4 percent, or 1/10th as large as today.
As government has gotten bigger, the stakes over which people are fighting get bigger and bigger. And as the stakes increase, people will do more and more to win them.
There is, in short, a lot more to fight about.
Societies where government matters a lot are, in general, worse places to live — especially if you are a middle-class person who is just trying to get by. Too little government to maintain order is clearly a bad thing, but so is too much government.
For many, this assertion seems counterintuitive. The federal government spends a lot of money on good things. Welfare spending, transfer payments, research and development, job training, NASA. Sure, we all know that a lot of money is wasted, but honestly the same can be said in the private sector.
Too many of our political arguments focus on what I think is that secondary issue of how much good the government can or does do versus the waste, fraud and abuse.
Waste, fraud and abuse are surely bad, but even a perfectly efficient government would be a huge problem in my view.
Which gets us back to the increasingly nasty tone of our politics.
A billion dollars is less than a rounding error in our current federal budget, but it is still a heck of a lot of money. Decisions are now routinely made in Washington that determine to whom money on this scale is distributed, and those decisions are based upon to whom the recipients are connected.
A simple list of recipients of federal tax breaks and subsidies demonstrates this fact. If the Republicans had won the White House in 2008, billions of dollars in “green” subsidies would not have been distributed. Instead, tax breaks for various businesses would probably have been passed, effectively giving billions to other well-connected groups.
The tax code is 17,000 pages long. I can assure you that hardly any of it is dedicated to setting tax rates. Most of it is about tweaking the code to benefit one group or another.
Is it any wonder that with stakes this high, millions are spent on lobbyists, and billions on campaigns?
The biggest losers are the middle class people who have to pay the freight for this. They don’t have the resources to effect decisions made in Washington, or for that matter campaigns. They will never be well connected, and the politicians who call the shots will never answer their phone calls.
Worse yet, as government grows, the regulatory state grows with it. Big businesses flourish in such an environment, because they just hire compliance officers and lawyers to shield them from its consequences. Lobbyists help shape the economic landscape to suit their needs, and help them get fat contracts. Small businesses, though, have no such luxury. And as a consequence their burdens get larger and larger.
Big government, in short, devolves into crony capitalism quite easily. The powerful thrive, and the rest of us become hostage to decisions outside our control.
Smaller government doesn’t create a utopia. There is no doubt that a lot of what bigger government does for us can reduce the risks of life.
But big government carries its own risks, and those risks outweigh the benefits. And one of the biggest risks, rarely thought of, is that bigger government actually hampers social mobility by giving enormous advantages to those who already have power and connections to influence government.
I long for the days when who won an election to federal office didn’t matter that much.
David Strom is a political consultant and a senior fellow of the Minnesota Free Market Institute, a project of the Center of the American Experiment.