This is folly. It’s the wrong diagnosis of current realities and so the wrong prescription for the future.
Back in the 1970s, when Reaganism became popular, top tax rates were in the 70s, growth was stagnant and inflation was high. Federal regulation stifled competition. Government welfare policies enabled a culture of dependency. Socialism was still a coherent creed, and many believed the capitalist world was headed toward a Swedish welfare model.
In short, in the 1970s, normal, nonideological people were right to think that their future prospects might be dimmed by a stultifying state. People were right to believe that government was undermining personal responsibility. People were right to have what Tyler Cowen, in a brilliant essay in Cato Unbound, calls the “liberty vs. power” paradigm burned into their minds — the idea that big government means less personal liberty.
But today, many of those old problems have receded or been addressed. Today the big threats to people’s future prospects come from complex, decentralized phenomena: Islamic extremism, failed states, global competition, global warming, nuclear proliferation, a skills-based economy, economic and social segmentation.
Normal, nonideological people are less concerned about the threat to their freedom from an overweening state than from the threats posed by these amorphous yet pervasive phenomena. The “liberty vs. power” paradigm is less germane. It’s been replaced in the public consciousness with a “security leads to freedom” paradigm. People with a secure base are more free to take risks and explore the possibilities of their world.
OK, so you have to laugh at the "normal, nonideological people," like David Brooks, I am sure. But Brooks is right; the era of small government is over. Aside from libertarians at the Cato Institute, there are no Democrats or Republicans who are arguing for a smaller government. And the Bush Administration has vastly expanded the size, scope, and reach of governmental power.
At issue today is how the resources of a large government are used. And as Glenn Greenwald points out in this long but very good post at Salon, the Republican Party of David Brooks has morphed from the party of Goldwater/Reagan limited government into the party of Big Brother:
That is exactly what the right-wing movement in this country is now -- an authoritarian movement animated by the Orwellian slogan that "security leads to freedom" which embraces and seeks ever-expanding government power based on the claimed need to protect people from all the scary, lurking dangers in the world -- dangers which are constantly stoked and inflammed in order to maximize the craving for "security," derived by vesting more and more power in the hands of our strong, protective Leaders...It's a very good post and Greenwald accurately and vividly describes the danger that unleashed neoconservatism poses to the country and the world.
But neoconservatism... touts a radical and authoritarian nanny-statism that seeks, at its core, to provide feelings of protection, safety, and moralistic clarity -- "security leads to freedom" -- all delivered by political leaders using ever-increasing federal government power and limitless militarism. Whether one believes in that radical and warped vision of the American federal government is, more than any other factor, what now determines one's political orientation...
But none of this expansion of government power has been undertaken in order to promote ends traditionally associated with liberalism either -- none of it is about creating social safety nets or addressing growing wealth disparities or regulating business. Instead, federal power is enlisted, and endlessly expanded, in service of an agenda of aggressive militarism abroad, liberty-infringement domestically, and an overarching sense of moralistic certitude and exceptionalism. This movement is neither "liberal" nor "conservative" as those terms are understood in their abstract form, but instead, is radical in its attempt to fundamentally re-define the American government and the functions it serves.
From a Judeo-Christian religious perspective, the legitimate rationale for having a big government today is that only a strong government has the resources to implement policies that bring about prophetic justice. Charity is important; personal responsibility is important. But progressive tax policies, Social Security and the social safety net, and the legal arm of the government protecting citizens from corporate greed run amok make it possible for the "mountains to be brought low and the valleys lifted" in a way that even the most caring individuals and religious communities could never do. We need big government to promote justice.
But as Greenwald points out this is not the big government the neocons have in mind. What I would add is that their "security leads to freedom" agenda is not only dangerous; it is a spiritual fraud. It is the antithesis of the values of Jesus and many other religious traditions. True security comes not from a strong military or cameras on every street corner or walls built to keep out terrorists or illegal immigrants; true security comes when we "know" God. (And one doesn't have to "believe" in the sky God who pops in occasionally to dazzle us with miracles to know and experience this genuine security.)
In the same way true freedom has nothing to do with being outwardly free to move about. Victor Frankel spoke eloquently of this after being held in a Nazi concentration camp:
Everything can be taken from a man but ...the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.Frankel was a Jew; in his confinement he discovered the spiritual insight once expressed by another Jew whose name was Jesus, the very same insight expressed centuries before by the Buddha. Whatever our outward circumstances we can be free. This is true freedom.
And the more we try to protect ourselves and see this (effort to protect ourselves) as the path to security and freedom, the less secure and free we become. We have a much larger and more lethal military today than any known in history; we have more security apparatus in place in our country in the form of watching and snooping; we are more worried about it than ever thanks to code levels yellow, orange, and red, and we have made the world less secure and ourselves less free because of it.
The neocons care nothing about this spiritual freedom, of course. They are only interested in holding and maintaining the freedom to exercise power, to protect our country's and their personal positions of privilege in the world. This is their real agenda, gussied up with a "security leads to freedom" slogan. It is our task as people who live out of the genuine security and freedom that our spiritual traditions give us to unmask and challenge this dangerous and fraudulent form of security and freedom.