Further Thoughts on the Dangers of Anti-Government Demagoguery

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

The late night shows on Comedy Central, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, have been especially strong lately, mocking the full-on craziness of the Foxiverse and other cable news shows in their coverage of the Ebola crisis.  I hesitate even to call it a "crisis," of course, because that feeds into the panic-mongering that Stewart and Colbert are ridiculing.  But given the death toll in several western African nations, I think it is reasonable to use that word.  Even so, it is obviously not true that Americans are all only moments away from being infected with this deadly disease, and it is truly sad that, once again, the voices of reason are provided by comedians, while right-wing politicians foment fear, and supposed journalists treat "Are we doomed?" as a matter of opinion, to be exploited for ratings.  Sad, but sadly unsurprising.

In my new Verdict column, published today, I take an unusual angle in analyzing the right-wing media's scare tactics regarding Ebola.  I first discuss the standard anti-government story that is so often voiced by conservatives, in which they say that "regulation" harms the economy.  This, of course, is a logically incoherent claim, because of the "baseline problem" that I have discussed frequently here on Dorf on Law (e.g., here): Every economy is regulated by the government, because every economy exists only because a government's rule-making and enforcement mechanisms allow commerce to proceed.

Of course, even though we have long known it to be true that the economy exists only because a government is there to enable it, it might still be possible to say that there is a meaningful way to define the extent to which an economy is regulated.  An "unregulated economy" might be an oxymoron, but perhaps it is possible to define and measure what it would mean for an economy to be "less regulated" and "more regulated."  As it turns out, however, even that is meaningless.

Consider, for example, a coal mine owner.  If the government sets rules about what the coal mine can do with its waste, either through negligence laws, tax incentives, or clean-up rules, it is commonly thought to be "regulating" the business.  But if it does not do any of that, then the government is merely regulating in a different way.  It would certainly prevent a person from collecting mining waste from a stream and dumping it on the property of the mine owner.  It would, in a number of plausible scenarios, arrest people who tried to protest at the house of the owner.  It would enforce the contracts that allow the mine owners to sell their coal.  It could prevent people from joining together to force the company to pay compensation to victims, not just by having the courts throw out suits against the company, but by passing laws making it illegal to criticize coal companies.  (Sound far-fetched?  Think about the "ag gag" laws regarding industrial animal processing.)

In short, the various ways in which a government can help or harm any particular business or industry are so varied that it is impossible to quantify them consistently in order to compare the degree of regulation.  In my column, however, I note that everyone (including me) does have an intuition about what it means to be "against regulation," even if such an idea is ultimately meaningless.  In the pedestrian sense of the word, the government is "regulating" when its actions help people who do not own businesses, while it is "not regulating" when it does nothing to stop businesses from doing what they would like to do.  When government takes actions that increase businesses' profits, the government is allowing "the free market" to work.  When it takes actions that increase the wages of workers, that is "intrusive government."  And people continue to think that this distinction is meaningful, even though coal companies and others rely every day on the government's explicit and implicit promises to take actions directly in defense of the companies' bottom lines.  (In the bad old days when mine owners hired paid thugs to beat union organizers, the government said that doing so was a legitimate action to protect property and contract rights, not a violation of the rights of speech and association.  Allowing thugs to act as enforcement agents is an affirmative choice by government.)

There is thus no content to the idea that the government is "less involved" when it allows powerful entities to press their advantage over less powerful people.  We are simply accustomed to blinding ourselves to the government's involvement in some situations, but to focus on its involvement in others.  "I know I'm being regulated, because the government is stopping me from doing what I want to do" means nothing, because government is always stopping someone from doing what they want to do (preventing one side of an agreement from walking away from a contract obligation, for example).  Moreover, people's ability to do what they want (such as buying another piece of land to expand a mining operation) is predicated on the government's having taken actions that allowed them to accumulate the means to do so.

At this point, then, we have seen that it is not only meaningless to say that "the government should get off our backs," but it is not even possible to critique government's involvement in an economy in a simplistic more/less fashion.  Ronald Reagan's famous line -- "Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem" -- reduces to nothing more than saying that government should help the Koch brothers rather than the people who are dying of lung disease.

In some ways, everything I have written above and in my Verdict column is old news.  Certainly the "no baseline" argument has been made for decades (as I readily acknowledge), and although my argument that this cannot even be a comparative matter is less familiar, I sincerely doubt that I am the first to have made something like that point.  The larger point that I make in today's column, however, might count as a new insight.  As is true of much of my writing, the point in some ways boils down to analyzing the consequences of rhetoric.

What are the consequences of people wrongly railing against "the government" in the way that Reagan and his acolytes have perfected?  Generally, it merely means that we adopt policies that are worse than policies that we would adopt in a non-Reaganite world.  Allowing, say, for-profit colleges to prey upon poor students, because to change the rules regarding such contracts would somehow violate free market principles, is a tragedy and terrible public policy.

Even so, the results of such bad policies are, for lack of a better word, finite.  Living in a world in which people think it means something to say that the "government is always wrong," and allowing them to use that illogic to twist public policy, means living in a world where people's lives are worse than they should be.  Some people remain without work, some people get sick, and some die sooner than they might have.  But being anti-government, as deluded as that might be, does not ultimately lead to chaos.

What makes the Ebola situation so remarkable, by contrast, is that the habit of demonizing government leads to absurdity and anarchy, rather than merely to unnecessarily bad policies.  Colbert aired a clip of some Fox talking head asking her viewers rhetorically if they believed that the (inherently incompetent and venal) government was telling the truth about Ebola.  And even though she was a truly extreme case, the attacks on the government that are such a habit from right-wingers regarding other policies have seamlessly crossed over to attacking the government again, even though there is no "market solution" to the Ebola crisis.

In other words, once the anti-government religion has become a fixed idea in people's minds, there is no compartmentalizing their hatred.  "Government is the problem," as incoherent as it is in the economic context, merely means choosing one type of regulation over another.  "Government is the problem" in the Ebola context leads to ... what?  When we rightly criticized the Bush Administration for its unforgivable mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, the idea was to try to force the proper authorities to act more vigilantly and competently in the future.  Unfortunately, for too many people, the lesson that they learned was that one should always attack the government, even when the alternative is mayhem.