A look at the small government mentality

At least he has good hair. European Union 2017 Via Flickr

How our opinions of the government are influenced and what it can mean for us moving forward

There are several things that have frequently been on the news and on my mind in the last couple of years as the world tackled a pandemic and significant economic tumult. The most salient of those things has been the authority that a duly elected government wields over their constituents. While this is not a new debate, I have been following the latest in the debate of big vs small government, taxation, and the possibility of government overreach and abuse of power.

It seems that there is a right-wing camp across the western world that believes government is inherently bad, and the less of it we have around, the better. This camp enjoys substantial support from corporations and billionaires, because these are the first groups to enjoy the benefits of tax breaks and other budget cuts that small governments often make. What baffles me is why these proponents of small government also seem to hold sway with the common people, those who cannot afford cuts to infrastructure, healthcare, and other public spending. After all, this camp is very clear on how they will balance the budget without raising taxes. It does not take a financial genius to figure out that this means cuts to existing government services.

In my limited reading of these issues, it appears that nowhere in the world is this phenomenon more prominent than North America, particularly our neighbour to the south who insist on exporting their way of life and philosophy of governance all over the world sometimes on the back of fighter jets, but more often through media and online propaganda. I am aware this sounds unkind, but it is nevertheless true. The US glorifies small government and individual freedom and will constantly push this viewpoint on everyone as gospel. The more worrisome aspects of this propaganda include their enshrinement of gun rights, something they have been guilty of pushing on Canada and Australia for the past several years. Thankfully, not much has come of it. In other ways, though, much damage has been done to more civilized forms of government, in Canada and elsewhere, due to this insistence that government is evil and incompetent and must be curtailed and kept small at all costs.

One highly visible impact on Canada has been the pushback that provincial and federal governments faced when trying to do the right thing in terms of public health and safety measures during the pandemic; the odd thing being that the US government was doing those same things. Nevertheless, fringe media and social media “experts” kept drawing false parallels to dictatorial regimes, apartheid states, and predicting that the government of Canada is about to pack people off to concentration camps because we were asked to get a vaccine that could save lives and that didn’t cost a single penny to the individual, and to keep a mask on when out in public spaces.

Personally, this betrays the privilege we enjoy in this part of the world. I have lived in oppressive, tyrannical regimes. They do not try to pay for your healthcare and make affordable daycare options available. Another big tell is that they do not let you spew silly conspiracy theories on Facebook. In fact, usually the first thing such regimes do is censor social media or get rid of internet access for common people.

However, all these things have been discussed extensively in the last few weeks and months. That is not what is on my mind today, as I write this. I have honestly been thinking about why this narrative of small government sells. Why are so many willing to believe that any authority granted to a government must necessarily end in a dictatorship and the abuse of human rights? I am no expert, but I am willing to share a hypothesis that, if true, might also show us how this issue can and should be addressed.

There is little point in denying that the US and Canada are founded by, and flourish due to, an influx of immigrants. The US is proud of their narrative about how they let in the most oppressed and downtrodden people, who then, on the wings of the freedom provided by America, reach dizzying heights of glory and achievement. A huge part of this narrative rests on the fact that these immigrants, wherever they are from, did not have the same degree of rights and freedom that North America affords them.

While this may be controversial to say, this claim was in fact true for a large part of the history of these nations. Some of the first immigrants to North America were from Europe, where their lifestyles, politics, or religion, were seen as suspect by the establishment, usually some European monarchy. In the last eight decades or so, many immigrants have been from the former Soviet Republic, the Arab states in the Middle East, and parts of South and Central Asia that have fallen under dictatorial rule. Of course, some day I will have to write about how many of those dictators were empowered by the US in their coups.

However, the fact remains that many of us left our homes because they became a hotbed of tyranny, suppression of freedom and rights, and sometimes downright ethnic cleansing. When you have seen a government that sends people in plain clothes to take away your parent who never returns, I guess it makes sense to buy into the narrative that government is evil.

Europe has evolved. Most European nations today are models of democracy, and at least one South Asian nation continues its struggle for a more perfect state. The same US that does not believe in publicly funded services remains the biggest proponent of a publicly funded military and police force. So, the government cannot be trusted with the coverage of prescription drugs, but it is fine that they have a stockpile of nuclear warheads and assault rifles. Sounds like a mixed message.

I do not feel as though I am more naïve than the next person, but I see a very false parallel when a government is accused of overreach because it wants to provide better health and dental insurance. However, I acknowledge that many of us fear that what begins with healthcare will end in a police state – to which my answer is to get involved at every level. Keep the government accountable. The answer to potential abuse of power is not to take away every single authority and reduce the government to a paper tiger.

The answer is to give them our consent, the consent of the governed, to enact legislation that benefits the common people, not corporations. I fully respect the spectre of government overreach that many of us are haunted by from our homes, but a false analogy only plays in the hands of those that, in fact, do not respect a true democracy. My home country was used in the 80s and 90s by the US and other proponents of small government as a testbed for budget cuts. Believe me when I say that leads to tyranny and oppression more than anything else ever will, because a small government that no longer provides direct services to you no longer remains answerable to you.


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