The Current Antigovernment Sentiment

September 7, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

I work hard to genuinely understand the views of those with whom I disagree. For me, it is not only a point of honor, an exercise of practicing what I preach, but also I find that I can learn important aspects of issues I might have otherwise missed, and that even if I don’t substantially change my views because of the encounter, I have most always felt it worth the effort.

I must say, however, that I am quite perplexed by the rise of a blanket antigovernment sentiment I am seeing increasingly. The first time I noticed it explicitly was in a “listening session” held by my freshman congressman, Adam Kinzinger, last spring. Kinzinger was one of those many young Republicans swept into office by Tea Party voters in the 2010 election. Since he is a PoliSci graduate of the state university where I teach, I attended his listening session, which turned out to be almost exclusively a one-way communication focused on the great wisdom of the Paul Ryan budget proposals. Well, OK, that’s about what I expected anyway. But in the course of his presentation, Kinzinger made many totally knee-jerk antigovernment statements that really surprised me. The most bewildering statement, confounding enough that I remember it clearly all these months later, was to the effect that only private sector jobs, not government jobs, can be counted as “real” jobs. This seemed like a very odd thing for him to say, given that he is a product of public and state schools, has spend all of his adult years preparing for and gaining public office, and was surrounded even that day by a cadre of buff-cut young staffers on his payroll who very likely would tell similar stories. It made me wonder just what the heck they were teaching over there in the PoliSci Department. But I just shrugged it off at the time-if my years of teaching have given me anything, it is an amazing tolerance for the excesses of youthful enthusiasm!

But this sentiment is popping up in many places now, and coming from people, such as the current slate of Republican “candidates,” who really ought to know better. I am genuinely perplexed by this. Just the other morning we had a letter to the editor in our local paper, under the title “Government is nothing but a spending machine!” In this letter, the writer, who I am sure thinks he was making sense, stated that “…government produces neither goods nor services!” I stopped short on that one. Is it possible that neither this fellow nor any of his family, nor any of his employees, have benefited from a public education? Is it possible that he does not drive on public streets, roads and highways? Does he not daily enjoy the protection of public police, fire and emergency services? Does he not enjoy public parks, pools and recreational facilities? Does he not appreciate the social insurance provided for himself and his family by Social Security? Does he not take for granted the control and protection of government regulators every time he buys medical supplies, meats and other foodstuffs? Does he not recognize that because of government regulated licensing procedures, he does not have to personally investigate the qualifications of every physician, lawyer, dentist, CPA, psychologist and social worker he may need to employ? Does he not appreciate that it is because of government zoning enforcement that a toxic waste dump cannot be placed right next to his property? The list goes on and on for any person who takes a minute to think about it.

I would be the first to grant that there is plenty of “waste and fraud” involved in the way government spends tax dollars. But let’s remember that by far the largest share of that waste and fraud comes from private-sector people contracting for government programs, who deliberately depend on cost overruns and other forms of fraud, knowing well that there is inadequate funding available for proper oversight. But the fact remains that government programs, products and services (schools, parks, safety, roads, food, air and water regulations, to name only a few)  represent the closest thing we in this country to “common wealth” that enhances the general quality of life and thus raises the standard of living for all citizens. While I want to respect and understand the views of all fellow citizens, it is very difficult to comprehend this current knee-jerk antigovernment sentiment as more than a sort of adolescent antiauthoritarian shriek.  Please, fellow citizens, we can surely do better than this.



  1. Government, like our parents, is a useful scapegoat when things go badly. Rather than take personal responsibility for one’s failures and make changes to solve one’s problems, which is difficult and in some cases impossible, people prefer to blame outside entities. They then seek to tear down these outside entities because of the satisfaction it brings them, regardless of whether they have a plan to fix the damage caused by the tearing down process.

    In a state like ours with an omnipresent federal government, it makes sense that dissatisfied individuals will blame the government when their lives turn sour. Even if the government does not deserve the blame, they are the easiest identifiable scapegoat. (Of course, we must remember that the government often does deserve blame in such circumstances.)

    Remove the government from the picture, and these people would likely blame other races, religions, or countries–the next-in-line scapegoats–for their problems.

    • Thanks for the comment. I think you are on to something important there. I am a little puzzled by your experience of our “omnipresent federal government.” This is quite different than my own experience of the federal government, which is mostly as low-grade background noise. I experience state and local government as many times more actively in-my-face than the federal government. Educate me here a bit, if you will.

      • I live near DC so my view may be a bit colored. But I will try to explain:

        The average person outside of DC most obviously interacts with the federal government in the following ways (off the top of my head and in order of salience): income taxes, airport security, and (less obviously) inflation of money. Most perceive these as negative effects of federal government.

        Less obviously, many individuals depend on the federal government to survive, through social security, medicare, medicaid, VA benefits, disability/unemployment payouts, etc. Interestingly, a recent poll showed that something like 70% of those who depend on such benefits to survive consistently vote in favor of smaller government, indicating that they do not associate these benefits with the generosity of the federal government. Rather, most people have an attitude that these benefits are deserved.

        Thus, for much of the country it’s a parent-child relationship: they depend on the federal government to survive but hate it for “punishing” them with taxes, etc. Beneficence is deserved, punishments are not.

        Children tend to say that they hate their parents when they actually hate themselves. (There’s some logic in this, for the parent plays a significant role in forming the child’s personality, but that’s another issue.) The same holds true for citizens and their government.

  2. I’m no Tea Partier, but I imagine you’d have as much objection to anarchist beliefs. I don’t see why antiauthoritarianism should be characterized as adolescent. Can’t it be a mature response to a world in which, as Howard Zinn put it, “[h]istorically, the most terrible things–war, genocide, and slavery–have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience”?

    • I very much respect a strong and healthy suspicion of power – the “Question Authority!” approach. But this current antigovernment stuff is more akin to a bunch of teenage boys standing around one-upping each other about how terrible the parents are, all the while being clothed, fed, housed and taken care of in general by their parents. You expect that lack of self-awareness from teens, but not mature adults. All of these “self-made, independent” types are just comical figures, like children sitting on people shoulders and pretending to be so much taller than everyone else. Take Dick Cheney’s claim that he “certainly didn’t get his wealth from government.” Right. 90%+ of his net worth stems from the few years he spent as CEO of Halliburton (and just what qualified him for that?) during which years Halliburton held at least $3.4billion in direct government contracts. A self-made independent indeed…

  3. I agree with Will about the ways he outlines that the federal gov’t impacts our lives. I would have included those things, however, mainly in what I referred to previously as “low-grade background noise” as opposed to strongly in-your-face impact. Maybe the difference is one of location, with Will in belly-of-the-beast DC, me in farmland Illinois. I have never experienced our US federal gov’t as a “parent.” That metaphor doesn’t seem to me to be at all empirical or realistic. I hear this phrase “nanny state,” but again i can only see that as a kind of childish ranting. If anything, the US gov’t is absolutely neglectful of its duty to look out for the best interests of the society as a whole, with special concern for those among us who are weakest and most vulnerable. Mostly, it just stands back lets the rich and powerful push through most anything they want, the common good be damned, under the ideological cover that what is good for the rich and powerful is good for the country as a whole. I am VERY CRITICAL of the US gov’t and there are very large areas in which I would like to see less gov’t (I think our military/industrial spending should be reduced at least by 400%, for example, and the quicker the better.) But that is very different than the knee-jerk antigov’t ideology I am criticizing in this blogpost, however.

    • PS: If we could figure out a way that is mathematically possible to reduce military/industrial spending by 400%, I would no doubt support that… but what I really meant to say was we should decrease it to 1/4 of the present spending levels, which is indeed mathematically possible.

  4. If the goverment is the parent and we the childern, so to speak. Who’s job is it to clean up my messey bedroom. And can I blame my parents because they gave me these things that now lay about my room?

  5. Help me out here Mr Liechty It seems like wealthy world citizens and multinational corporations benefit the most from the fall of government. If big business convince the the people kill their own government, does it then by default strengthen organized moneyed interests? Without over site, It is then left to the people to defend resources, which we try to do in our primitive manner, like the Brazilians who oppose that crazy big dam, or anti fracking movement…then the police turn on us, and we are still fighting each other while ‘they’ turn our world into something really ugly. Could it be so simple that big business is a reaction to democracy? Or that power, without kings, is up for grabs and government is just a player, now weakened by, but never anyplace to talk them out. I would appreciate your more knowledgeable input. Thank you Kelli

    • I agree in general that it is the wealthiest among us who most benefit from weak government, a government unable to adequate regulate the activities of the businesses and corporations owned by the wealthiest class. However, this is only true up to a point. If the government weakens to the point that there is no basic general law enforcement (as is currently the case in some African countries) then “government” in these areas basically falls to armed warlords, who will “govern” according to their own direct favor, taking whatever they want, leaving only what is left over for others. These warlords may be part of the wealthy class, but mostly not. The wealthy class may use their wealth to try to control the warlords (rent them, so to speak) but that will only last until the warlords recognize that they don’t have to take orders of others for payment, but can simply confiscate the wealth away directly themselves. So, the wealthy class is best served by a weak-but-not-too-weak government, and even better by a relatively strong government that is completely bought off by them (which is close to what we have now.) The point of my posting is that simple “knee jerk” anti-governmentalism is very counterproductive, and mostly just plays into the hands of the wealthiest among us. What we need is a government strong enough to regulate business and corporate activities and, furthermore, able to ENFORCE that regulation. But just as important, we need a government WILLING to regulate and enforce that regulation. We haven’t had such a government since at least the Ford administration.

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