“Look, I get that you don’t like the government, but how do you plan to pay the cops if we abolish all taxes?”
Conservatives are regularly derided by liberals–from bloggers to Presidents–as wanting to tear down the entire government and stop all government functions and programs. I’ve been attacked for this myself.
If the charge is not, “You hate the government and want to close it down,” then it’s, “You’re a hypocrite because you say you hate the government but you still drive on public roads!”
Are either of these charges accurate?
This attack often presents as evidence either 1) the conservative desire to lower everyone’s taxes, or 2) conservative opposition to particular projects.
Let’s take these one at a time. Issue one is taxes. The reasoning goes that since government needs money to function, if conservatives want to cut taxes, then conservatives must want the government to stop functioning.
But while lowering taxes might mean having to cut or scale back some government programs or services, the idea that conservatives want to eliminate ALL taxes and cease ALL programs does not follow. If I’m spending too much in my personal life and decide I ought to cancel my cable TV, this does not mean I secretly want to stop wearing deodorant and become a hermit.
Then what about Republican opposition to specific spending projects? Do conservatives want to eliminate roads and schools? I’ve been hearing that charge my entire life, along with the claim that Republicans want to fire all the cops and firefighters. Or, opponents will point to conservatives’ desire to eliminate certain federal programs or departments–the Department of Education, for example, or the Affordable Care Act.
Federalism means that governing power is shared and divided between central and local governing bodies (e.g. states or provinces). Subsidiarity is the organizational principle that the smallest, most local authority that can effectively accomplish a task, should be the authority responsible for it.
We all know these concepts instinctively. We recognize that individual employees are capable of walking to the supply room and taking a box of staples when they run out, and we react against micromanagerial policies that require a manager’s signature to requisition staples and pens and a supervisor to open the supply room. It wastes the time of both manager and employee, it saps morale by treating people like children, and that all means a waste of money.
Subsidiarity does not say that local government should do everything and the federal government should do nothing. A staple czar is a bad idea, but a company can’t function without a chief at all. So of course there are things that only a central government can manage well, and subsidiarity says that the central government should do those things. Subsidiarity simply means that we ought to direct our efforts where they will be effective.
Within this framework, conservatives believe that the federal government, and local governments, and businesses, and individuals are all going to be good at certain things; and, if we’re smart, we’ll avoid making any of those groups responsible for tasks to which they are not suited. The point is to avoid wasting money and effort.
So it’s not that I don’t want public roads. I think that’s something government can be relatively good at, as long as we keep an eye on corruption. It’s not that I don’t want schools. It’s that I don’t think the federal government is at all good at running them. State and local governments are handling it, so let’s not waste effort where it’s not needed. Let’s not send money from Illinois to Washington, D.C. to pay for an expensive building full of expensive bureaucrats who will then decide how much of that money comes back to Illinois and how we should spend it.
Yes, I bristle when conservatives are called anti-education for taking issue with the Dept of Education, a federal, Cabinet-level Department with a nearly $70 billion budget whose mission is to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” What does that mean? It means the Dept. of Education doesn’t educate a single student. State and local government handles this.
Back to the beginning. Why, then, is this presented as, “Conservatives don’t want the government to do anything at all, ever!”? Because it looks that way from the point of view of today’s liberal Democratic party. The left today acts as if every social issue can and should be solved by a new shiny federal office full of federal workers. Progressives today argue without irony that a government’s effectiveness is defined by the number of laws it passes, and that when conservatives say, “Let’s cut this program because it’s not helping the poor,” they must really mean, “We don’t want to help the poor.” But subsidiarity means not doing things that won’t work. And I think that’s a reasonable principle to follow.