I used to believe that Conservatives opposed government because government was the only social institution that had the standing to oppose anything they wanted to do. I thought the Party of Big Business was just taking care of business.
But I was wrong and I have to apologize to those previous Conservatives. It is not as simple as I made it out to. So, if there are any Conservatives out there reading this, I apologize for underestimating you.
Here’s what I think the situation is now.
Back in the late 1800’s, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America:
“I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest — his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind ; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not — he touches them, but he feels them not ; he exists but in himself and for himself alone ; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country. Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood ; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood : it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances — what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent ; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things : it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits.
“After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting : such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence ; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
Sorry for the length of that quote but I think the vision is important, and obviously it was had a long time ago and probably before de Tocqueville. In the 1800’s the American experiment was still quite an odd affair. People governing themselves with no king or emperor? Preposterous. It took World War I to break the pattern of the divine rights of kings. But while Americans were afraid of despots taking over then as now, that is true fascism, de Tocqueville observed that it is quite possible that The Government Itself could become a substitute despot. And de Tocqueville was not alone.
Many Conservatives feared “Big Government” back in those days for that very reason, a good reason. And compared to the size of “government” now, it was puny back then. This anti-Big Government trope became a cornerstone of Conservative ideology that has lasted to this day—Do not let government grow to the point that our lives are ruled by it. So, the insistence that the Founders of the Constitution were small government advocates (most were not) came from there and a lot of other stuff.
But the New Deal, combined with the expansion of the federal government as a response to World War II drove the Conservatives a bit over the edge. A number of them decided that “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Instead of actually opposing big government, they decided that while the posturing would continue, the goal was the capture of the government and the running of the government for their ends into the future.
“So, while it looks like Conservatives fear Big Government,
they do not really fear it any more.
They have accepted that it is despotic,
that they couldn’t defeat it, but they could co-opt it.”
So, while it appears that Conservatives oppose “Big Government” only because it is the only social institution left that can oppose the will of Big Business, that is only a scrim, a stage setting. The monied interests (rich individuals and corporations) have already purchased our governments (sufficient of them in number to constitute a majority). They own the GOP. They have purchased most of the Democrats. They own the Courts. Now “shrinking of the government” is only a guise for the rubes. The drive to “reduce the amount of government regulation” (cue the voice of Foghorn Leghorn) is not to “reduce the size of government,” it is to get government out of business pockets. The drive to have tax reform is not to “reduce the size of government” but to cut taxes on the rich, so they will have even more money to buy governmental interests.
They are now officially, but not openly, okay with big government. (Most people didn’t notice that under the last six presidents, the government grew more under Republicans than Democrats.) Now with regard to government, it is the more the merrier, as long as it address their needs. Can you imaging the howling if the federal government picked out one business, say FedEx, to “defund” and to pull support from as they have done with Planned Parenthood? The howls could be heard on the Moon. But Planned Parenthood? It is okay for the federal government to attack it … now. You will see more of this.
So, while it looks like Conservatives fear Big Government, they do not really fear it any more. They have accepted that it is despotic, that they couldn’t defeat it, but they could co-opt it.
Until we, The People, deal with the oligarchs and roll back despotic government, it will continue to hang like ripe fruit in front of the eyes of rich men and corporations who know what to do with it. And it is for sale, no matter what we might wish.