Monday, May 16, 2011

The Era of Republican Big Government is Already Here

It is far too soon to make sweeping pronouncements of any sort, but one of the most persistent issues of next year's Presidential Election may well be a grand debate on the size of government. Republicans have considered this their meat-and-potatoes issue since 1980, but in many ways, it is far less applicable today. Even so, now that a substantial federal deficit exists, Republican Presidential candidates will be sure to keep bringing up that fact in debates, television ads, flyers, e-mail blasts, Tweets, and solicitations for contributions. If only they knew that the era of Big Government has long been over. Their paranoia about the evils of contagious socialism is a mere specter now. But so far as myths go, this is one of the more persistent, and has gone unchallenged for so many years that it might as well be gospel in the minds of many believers.

An issue rarely articulated on any grand scale, for reasons unknown, goes directly to the problem. If we really were having a national discussion about the ideal size and function of government, then that topic might be a debate worth having. But up until now, our arguments and counter-arguments have not considered a especially crucial factor. In an effort to minimize cost, government has increasingly turned to private, contract labor to offset its expenses. Sometimes contracting out basic services does improve its bottom line, and sometimes it allows government agencies, by accounting slight-of-hand, to make it appear as though substantial savings have resulted. Fewer official government employees on the rolls does cut down on expenses due to salary, benefits, and pensions. And with that judicious pruning comes funding necessary to run programs, initiatives, and departments. This is completely disingenuous and counter-intuitive thinking, but such is the nature of the game sometimes.

A website from Cornell University Department of Government reveals the truth.

Privatization is a worldwide phenomenon. In recent years all levels of government, seeking to reduce costs, have begun turning to the private sector to provide some of the services that are ordinarily provided by government. The spread of the privatization movement is grounded in the fundamental belief that market competition in the private sector is a more efficient way to provide these services and allows for greater citizen choice. In practice, however, concerns about service quality, social equity, and employment conditions raise skepticism of privatization.

This process was underway well before the recession hit and the job market tanked. The aftershocks are still with us. A bad economy forced government to outsource even more and more jobs to the private sector. But this was not a reaction unique only to government. Many Americans have had no choice but to accept contract employment, often granted without health insurance, frequently without recourse should they lose their jobs, often at reduced rates of pay, without any semblance of job security, and regularly for short periods of time only without any further promise of work. Some people believe that if government proves problematic or inefficient, the private sector is its flawless, shining savior. Should we not also take into account the multiple shortcomings of the private sector in rectifying an intricate problem, we are doing no one much good at all.

What follows below are, admittedly, the worst-case scenarios of contract labor in the context of security. We saw some of these excesses with Blackwater and Halliburton in Iraq. And though these pertain to one specific field, they do have a broader application. Before I share, I would also like to point out that Republicans approve wholeheartedly of big government. It's called the military. My source here is Armies Without States written by Robert Mandel.

On the subject of individual attitudes, selfish panic can result. This destroys a sense of community obligations and it magnifies, massively, this perceived fear. On the subject of societal norms, unjust inequality is sometimes created. What is then created is a might-makes-right social order, which then widens the security gap between rich and poor. Regarding state responsibilities, government facade breaks down. There is often a complete loss of state control over society. Conflict management can quickly sour, producing institutional violence. Coercive force becomes the tool of choice and government security forces grow increasingly militarized. On the question of basic law enforcement, integrity vanishes. Corruption grows as does the resentment and friction between public and private sector officials. And, lastly, as pertains to foreign policy, restraint is abandoned wholesale. Those in charge result to destructive neocolonialist behavior, and behave irresponsibly in asserting foreign policy by proxy.

All of this, amazingly, seems to be translated directly from the Neocon, and perhaps even the Tea Party playbook. But to me, speaking from my own perspective, it serves as a warning about what increasing the impact of the private sector could well produce. These very same problems can be found in many other government agencies, departments, and bureaus. America is a nation beholden to contradiction. We are governed under a confusing, constantly shifting system of government known as Federalism. And anyone who holds the Tenth Amendment near and dear to his or her heart memorized long ago that powers not explicitly delegated to the Federal Government are the purview of the states. But since then, we've all argued incessantly about exactly what those rights really are. As have the courts. It nearly goes without saying that the public sector and private sector are immensely different. Their priorities and basic intentions are often at loggerheads and they will never see eye to eye on certain crucial issues.

Watch and listen to the latest declared 2012 Republican candidates over the next several months. You'll hear many a lilting paean to the goodness and virtuous rightness of smaller government. Contrary to what they think, "government", in the traditional sense, has been shrinking for a while now. We're all the worse for it, since the people who provide us needed basic services are more and more pulled from the roles of the mercenary novice of immediate need. While I will concede that the structure of government is often far too unnecessarily complicated, but removing, for the sake of cost alone, skilled workers who have learned with time how to best manage the system is pure foolishness.

This country is currently sitting on several potentially lethal time bombs, and this issue is one of them. We cannot resort to quick fixes. We must look long and hard at how we can update our thinking. Otherwise, we are like a star slowly burning itself out. In part, this is so because we only think about reductionist arguments that sound good but aren't viable unless we really consider the big picture. Until then, Republicans ought to concede that they are also the party of big government. Government by any other name, of course.

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