The Irony of “Blame Government” Politicians

March 2, 2008 at 5:22 pm

In the ’80s, conservatives introduced the frame of smaller government which has transformed itself into “government is bad” or the “blame government” frame:

Here’s some statements you’ll frequently hear from “blame government” politicians:

  1. It’s inefficient
  2. The market can do a better job
  3. End “big government”
  4. Government supports welfare and entitlement programs
  5. Government = bureaucracy = ineffective
  6. Government is the problem, not the solution

Sound familiar? What started as a movement to reduce the size of government has turned into a more general framework blaming all of societies ills on government. “Blame government” politicians instead propose:

  1. Letting the market work
  2. Letting the market work
  3. Letting the market work

Now, regardless of the veracity of these statements or whether this philosophy is being advanced by corporations who may benefit, think about what it means to be one of these “blame government” leaders, government leaders who don’t believe that government is the solution (except in the case of the military).

If you were a CEO, you would be a CEO that not only doesn’t believe in your business, but is arguing that the business should be eliminated. It would be one thing to say that the business could be reformed, but quite another to advocate that it is completely ineffective.

Especially when citizens everyday benefit from government programs like the federal mail, the public library system, and public freeways. Imagine the tolls, for instance, if private companies were allowed to build the freeways (hint: just think about your phone bill since deregulation – remember when businesses promised that competition would drive down prices?)

There are a couple of immediate consequences of this “blame government” mentality:

  • Lack of accountability – Since leadership doesn’t believe in government, government does not have to be accountable or responsible to leadership. Leadership does not hold government agencies responsible for doing a good job. If the government messes up, then I can say I’m right – government is bad.
  • No incentive for good government – People within government are only incentivized to help dismantle government and there is no incentive to do a good job.
  • Doing a poor job proves leadership right – When government fails, leadership looks good. Think about this for a second. If you’re a government employee, every time you fail, your leaders can say they were right. Why would you ever work hard to make government work?

Now I am not arguing that the present administration is doing everything it can to make the government look bad, but I am saying that because they come out against government, they have no incentive to make government better. In fact, the temptation would be to actively make it worse or look worse so that you could continue to dismantle it.

The irony of this is that when you vote for a “blame government” politician, you are voting to put someone into government who succeeds even when he or she fails. There is no incentive for this person to do a good job.

If a “blame government” politician fails, why not blame it on the bureaucracy of big government? Not only that, but failure fuels the argument for less government.

Let’s look at a few examples. Before and during Hurricane Katrina, the Bush Administration prioritized terrorism over natural disasters. FEMA was placed under the Department of Homeland Security and Michael Brown, an unqualified friend of the administration was placed in charge.

As Brown told the Senate, “because this was a natural disaster, that has become the stepchild within the Department of Homeland Security.”

Pundits like Rush Limbaugh, however, have used Hurricane Katrina as an example of government failure. Not FEMA, of course. Not the agency designed to act in matters of crisis. But the Democratic government (characterizing Democrats as “big government”) of Louisiana.

“They had no idea what to do because they’ve been told somebody else was going to fix it,” Limbaugh said.

Now some might say New Orleans struggled because it was hit by the biggest hurricane in Louisiana in 50 years. But Rush claims New Orleans had no idea what to do because they had somehow become dependent on the government.

Does this mean victims of 9/11 were also dependent on the government? Of course not. It doesn’t make any sense. Just like blaming the victims of Hurricane Katrina for their inadequate response to a once in a lifetime disaster.

This is one of the reasons that organizations like FEMA exist. One of the things we used to believe about government, was that in times of extraordinary crisis, the government, representing the people, could help those in serious need. This situation is in fact an ideal example of where government can succeed. If you think about government as representing the people and as designed to mobilize resources in times of great crisis: the World Trade Center bombing and Hurricane Katrina, for example.

But conservative pundits not only blame the victims, they’re actually trying to use this failure of government (taking their eye off everything but terrorism) to advance their agenda of getting rid of government.

While I give President Bush some credit for publicly stating that he bears responsibility for the failures at the federal government level, not much seems to have changed since his statement. FEMA is still a department under Homeland Security. Terrorism and Iraq are our national priorities. Rebuilding New Orleans still seems to be primarily the responsibility of the victims.

The lesson to be learned here is not that government is inherently good or inherently bad, but that we should be thinking about the role of government. Do we want our government to be primarily military in nature? Or, are there other national priorities that our government, a government by and for the people, should address?

This is the debate we should be having around election season. We should be asking ourselves questions like:

  • Do we want someone in government who gets rewarded whenever government performs poorly?
  • How should we incentivize our leaders to provide us with the best government possible?

We should be thinking about what kind of leaders will bring us more effective and responsible government. Do we want a leader who wins whenever he makes a bad decision?