Government's legitimate roles and the Bush administration's policies
Carlton M. Caves
2002 December 15

This initial essay was written toward the end of 2002. It was initially supposed to be an analysis of the societal tasks that should be done by government, with the idea that agreement on those tasks is the essential input for determining how "big" government ought to be and how much it has to tax. Even starting that analysis was more ambitious than I had time for, so the essay ended up as just an (incomplete) criticism of the Bush administration's policies in most of the area of government responsibility. I am posting it now (04-9-29) because, well, why not.

The Bush administration's policies proceed broadly from two objectives: (i) US hegemony abroad, with the US serving as the legislature, executive, and judiciary of a "world government" run by us with no appeal; (ii) crippling the federal government, so that it becomes a shell whose chief role is to shovel subsidies to business and wealthy elites.

The most insidious aspect of President Bush is that he has learned the fundamental lesson never to say directly what he is doing or why he is doing it. He sugarcoats what he says to the public (lying is the plain word for it), never admitting to the real objective (which is always one of the two above), instead always claiming that his proposals are advancing the very interests they oppose. This is the real meaning of "compassionate conservatism": steer hard right, advancing a radical conservative agenda---nobody wants to deny that he gives you "conservatism" in spades---while always lying about the real objective, so that people, at least initially, are spared the knowledge of how they are being screwed---there's the "compassion." Since this relies on masking his true intentions, a penchant for secrecy is part and parcel of it.

To know what the federal government ought to be doing, we need a list of its legitimate functions. Following is an attempt to begin a list.

1. External relations

The Bush policy is based on hegemony abroad, with the US serving as legislature, executive, and judiciary of a "world government" run by us with no appeal. This "conservative internationalism" relies nearly exclusively on the use of force or the threat of it to advance American interests, real or perceived. It is to be contrasted with the traditional conservative foreign policy of "realpolitik," which is based on a narrow "realistic" definition of American interests, informed by a concern for the limits of American power, and with "liberal internationalism," which seeks to build international institutions to govern world affairs among sovereign states, the model being roughly a set of international institutions much like that of a federal nation like the United States. Both liberal and conservative internationalisms perceive many more opportunities for asserting American influence abroad than does realpolitik, but they differ markedly in their emphases on multilaterial vs. unilateral action, the use of force, and the promotion of human rights vs. the economic rights of large capitalist entities.

The way this has played out in the Bush administration has been skewed by the war on terrorism. The Bush administration started out with a policy of rejection of multilateral efforts, the most notable example being the arrogant dismissal of the Kyoto protocols without any acknowledgment that there might be parts of them that should be salvaged and without any attempt to put anything in their place. This unilateralism has been somewhat moderated by the war on terrorism, which has forced the administration to work with international institutions. Even here, however, the administration's predilection is to use international institutions only to provide cover for its unilateral policies.

2. National defense and homeland security

The administration's policy places way too much emphasis on Iraq, with too little on Al Qaeda.

The war on terrorism is going to require a three-pronged approach: (i) constant pressure on the terrorist organizations themselves, with maximal use of force against them; (ii) constant pressure on Arab and Islamic governments to quit supporting terrorists, either directly or indirectly through use of the educational and information systems to demonize the United States and Israel and subtly or directly to endorse the tactics and goals of the terrorists; (iii) getting out from under dependence on Arab and Islamic oil, so we can act independently of an economic dependence on their good will. The first of these requires constant attention, yet important though it is, the other two are of more long-term importance. We must seek to reform the Arab world, which has not a single modernist, democratic government. In particular, we must work toward a third way between the repressive governments in the region and the fundamentalist opposition to those governments. Many of the governments are of the worst sort, certainly repressive, but attempting to buy off their fundamentalist opposition by explicit or tacit support of fundamentalist objectives. How to start changing things? That's a tough one, but at the very least, we need to make available unbiased information that exposes the lies of much of the Arab and Islamic media and to keep constant pressure on the governments and elites to disavow fundamentalism. It will almost certainly be a good idea to take advantage of the talents and expertise of the large American Muslim community. It would be especially useful to have even one example of a successful Arab or Islamic country with a modernist government that respects its own Islamic traditions and successfully deals with the West.

3. Health and safety

The health-care system is going to blow up on us. The Republican strategy of managed care through private insurers is impoverishing doctors while delivering less care.

4. Economic health and security

Getting out from under foreign oil should be a major goal. This is a no-brainer. It is essential for addressing global warming, for our country's ultimate economic health, and for our national security, but the administration has no vision for the development of alternative energy sources or for more efficient use of energy, both of which are essential for reducing the demand for oil.

5. Environment

Environmental degradation and habitat destruction are perhaps the most important issues facing us in the 21st Century, but the Bush administration consistently makes choices that move in the wrong direction. The push for drilling in ANWR is an obvious, high-profile example, but more important are the systematic weakening of clean air and water regulations and the rush to trash the West by pursuing irresponsible energy development on federal lands. Note that after the November 2002 election, the administration moved quickly to allow accelerated energy development on federal lands, to ease timber cutting policies in the national forests, and to change rules for emissions from major industries. All these areas do need reformed national policies, but the reform needs to go in the direction of greater protection of the environment. Instead, the Bush policies are systematically in favor of developers or polluters and harmful to the environment. By pointing to the need for reform, however, the Bush administration is able to achieve its most cherished objective of talking out of one side of its mouth (compassion), while acting out of the other side (conservatism).

The Kyoto protocols are another example of the administration's hostility to the environment. The administration pulled out of the protocols unilaterally. It has now formulated a "science plan" aimed at reducing the uncertainty in the scientific projections for global warming, so that policymakers can proceed on a surer basis, ignoring the fact that there is already sufficient evidence to make clear that global warming is a consequence of human activities and will become a catastrophic problem by the end of the century without pro-active policies now.

6. Transportation and communications

There is no better way to promote economic efficiency than through providing efficient transportation and communication systems. Nobody on the national scene has any real vision here---why didn't we use the surplus to ensure that American cities have modern public transportation systems?---except the 9/11-induced response to man the airports with better security crews. Since lines are now noticeably shorter, there already are GOP demands to cut the size of the Transportation Security Administration.

7. Education

8. Effective, efficient, open government

Trashing the federal government is explicit GOP philosophy. The Bush tax cuts will permanently cripple the federal government's ability to govern; this is a Republican goal because it will make it easier for business and wealthy elites to manipulate the federal government to their advantage. For example, the IRS is being systematically underfunded to the point where the perception of fairness in the tax system will be severely impacted, with the result that the income tax system will falter and fail. Radical economic deregulation will undermine the perception of fairness that is essential for healthy operation of the economy (it's not that the government should plan or run the economy, but that it should enforce the rules that ensure that the economy operates fairly). The biggest problem, however, is that the Bush tax cuts will so cripple the federal government that it will lose the ability to mount new initiatives to address major national problems.

Secrecy in government is another aspect of the Bush assault on the federal government. President Bush and his administration consistently decide in favor of keeping government affairs secret. This is part and parcel of the desire to make the federal government serve the GOP's allies and their special interests, with the consequent need to shield that real agenda from public scrutiny.

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