In the midst of the dirty tricks and ugly slanging matches in the lead-up to the New Zealand election, the debate of the issues has actually reached a slightly higher standard than in the past. On TV, this has in part been due to the influence of John Campbell and TV3, who by treating the viewer with a modicum of intelligence has helped the channel make huge inroads into the urban, educated audience and forced complacent, lumbering TVNZ to up its game.
[Don't laugh], blogs have also had some impact. While they have only a limited direct audience, bloggers like Russell Brown, Frogblog (Green Party) and, National's David Farrar have hurried up the mainstream media a little by exposing contradictory statements, questioning assumptions, checking facts and uncovering sources.
But there's a highly annoying and recurring feature of the discussion that nobody has yet critiqued. This is the continued characterisation of social democractic parties as favouring "big government" and "more intervention", while conservative parties are said to support "smaller government" and "less intervention".
These phrases are rhetorical flourishes long employed by Republicans in the U.S. to skew arguments their way--if you're allowed to choose the language you've won half the battle. Yet here they've been repeatedly employed by commentators who at least purport to be giving a neutral description of policies. For example, a work colleague who was recently describing the various political parties to an American visitor, and who clearly thought he was doing so from an objective viewpoint, told her that "Labour favours big government". Amongst the media, even the mostly thoughtful Colin James in the Herald has used the same terminology.
"Big government" suggests something bloated and lumbering, conjuring up images of hordes of grey bureaucrats making everyone fill out forms. It also has sinister connotations of a multi-tentacled faceless entity intruding into people's lives. Likewise, "intervention" suggests meddling, interfering with the natural state of things.
"Less government and less intervention" meanwhile, sounds clean and crisp, with implications of freedom, fewer grey suits, and people getting on with their lives.
But what do these characterisations acutally mean, and are they at all accurate?
A literal interpretation of "big government" would seem to imply big-spending. This reflects the historical view that left-leaning governments are profligate in their social spending, while liberal or conservative governments balance the books. However, this distinction no longer seems to hold true. In New Zealand the social democratic Labour government has been a model of fiscal responsibility, while National promises to borrow more and erode the existing surplus. In the U.S., the Clinton years saw the building of a budget surplus which turned out to be an oasis between the ballooning deficits of the Reagan and George W Bush Republican administrations.
"Intervention" is an even more nebulous concept. American conservatives have spent many years railing against "government intervention", but it's not clear that they've been consistent about it. The same society which long resisted background checks for people attending gun shows swiftly moved to allow law enforcement agencies to secretly review library users' borrowing records1. And even most conservatives would be embarrassed by the question: if a government should ever "intervene", (i.e. act), should it prioritise intervening in another country by invading it, or intervening in a local disaster by providing medicine and water?
Taxation aside, it's left-leaning parties' social policies that attract the most flack from right-wingers who deride what they call "social engineering". But funnily enough, the policies of progressive administrations that have most raised the ire of conservatives have generally been about promoting less intervention in people's lives: de-criminalisation of prostitution, de-criminalization of cannabis, allowing gay couples to be formally recognised. It's a laughably perverse for people to claim, as some have, that "homosexuality has been forced on us" when the right they say they have lost is to direct their intolerance and sanction on others who are doing them no harm.
There is, in fact, a reasonably consistent distinction between the social democratic and conservative approaches as regards the role of government and the kinds of interventions each considers appropriate. But it's not at all the simplistic "less vs. more" difference with which we're usually presented.
Social democratic parties do tend to put more emphasis on government funding of health, education and social services. The wellbeing of society at large is considered to be a public venture, worthy of public investment. Progressive philosophies are underpinned by the belief that it's possible to actively reduce the inequality and unfairness of society.
Convservative parties are more prepared to tolerate structural inequalities. They emphasise the ability of individuals to overcome these barriers, and their right to be rewarded for doing so. To maintain order, however, they deploy the power of the state in a more punitive, deterring way. They promise to be "tough on crime" and bolster spending on the police and prisons.
They also spend more on defense. While progressives are more likely to be internationalists, conservatives have a more pessimistic view of human nature and believe that nation state is the broadest sphere in which the rule of law can be reasonably expected to operate. Beyond its borders, what matters is being powerful and having powerful friends.
The libertarian position which consistently rejects any kind of government involvement really only flourishes in liberal economics departments and Reason magazine. In New Zealand, the ACT party, which began as a libertarian Ayn Rand appreciation club, morphed within a few years into single mother-bashing puritans who thought we should spend more on defense. Don Brash started out as a socially liberal finance wonk who just wanted to lower taxes; now he finds himself reversing his position on civil unions, promising to "rebuild" the police and end parole, and becoming an unwitting poster boy for big religion.
Tthe United States is consistently held up as an example of limited government and free-spirited commerce. But if you look closely, you find a history of pretty big government. American enterprise has long been supported by systematic intervention of its government in other countries to ensure the availability of resources and the conditions for successful commerce2. Closer to home, the US imprisons and executes its citizens at a greater rate than other developed nations. Such government activities allow heavy subsidisation of less wealthy areas through the location of military bases and prisons.
And while social democratic attempts to introduce initiatives like universal health insurance have repeatedly met with stalwart opposition, there has been no such reluctance to unleash punitive measures against activities judged destabilising to the social order. Eric Schlosser's excellent book Reefer Madness provides some illuminating case studies of the enormous resources deployed by government against individuals best described as entrepreneurial capitalists, operating in industries (e.g. marijuana, pornography) in which they have caused no direct harm3.
So it turns out that "intervention" by "big government" can take different forms. Within limits, I favour the social democratic approach, which is not only kinder, but shows good evidence of being more efficient. Ronald Reagan said that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem". If he were talking about the wastage and violence of the "War on Drugs", which after many years even the British police agree has been an abysmal failure, I would be inclined to agree.
1. Post 9/11, though the provisions of the Patriot Act
2. Not necessarily a criticism. Such interventions have ranged from the generous and visionary (e.g the Marshall Plan) to the foolhardy (the creation of Al-Qaeda in 1980s Afghanistan) to the simply criminal (e.g. CIA plot to assassinate Salvador Allende).
3. Here is another good example. Look for the sly pun in the last sentence.
Categories: Politics, New Zealand Election, Ideology