Every time I am in an airport, I think about big government. There are 20,000 airports in the US and the federal government oversees every one. Not only are there volumes of federal rules about airports, but the FAA controls every flight of the 5000 airplanes that are in the air at one time every day. Any government which does all that has to be big. But recently politicians and voters on the right have created a barrage of criticism of “big government”. For them there is nothing good about government and nothing that private enterprise could not do better.
So here’s an idea: let’s take the federal government right out of the air travel business. Let’s get rid of all those regulations that cost us passengers money. Let’s fire all those bureaucrats paid by our taxes to manage air travel from Maine to Hawaii. Let’s give the airports to United Airlines and Boeing and Starbucks and CNN, and some banks, and lots of rich people who control all those businesses. Maybe they could save money by shortening the time between takeoffs. Certainly there are more services that could be sold to first class ticket holders, to speed them to their seats on the plane, as the rest of us watch them go by. And if all these gigantic corporations want to build an airport right in your neighborhood, let’s just get government out of the way of profit!
That’s obviously a joke, because nobody with any sense would trust big corporations to put our safety first. Nobody would trust big capitalism to create a democratic process for making important decisions about airport noise. Nobody would trust big capitalists to protect the interests of the less fortunate among us. In the free market, if you don’t have money, you don’t vote.
Airports are just one example of the importance of government in many areas that mean safety for our families, like school buses, industrial waste products, automobile design, toy manufacture, restaurant inspection, drug testing, and I could go on and on. But I hear conservative politicians say with astonishing repetition that big government is bad and big business is our friend. “Big government” means all those things the speaker doesn’t like, which is probably a fraction of what government does. “Big business”, well, they don’t actually say “big business”, that doesn’t sound friendly enough. So they say “the free market”, by which they mean all those good qualities of American commerce, some of which are imaginary, like the nutritional value of their food products. All the inhumane, unsafe, greedy consequences of the lust to make more money just disappear in the imaginations of free market ideologues.
When I remarked to the businessman next to me as we landed about how much construction we saw in both St. Louis and Chicago airports, he said only this: “A lot of tax money to spend.” Out of all the reactions he might have had, that was a surprising one. The possibility that these projects represented thoughtful planning for the future, improvements in service to passengers, economic development for those cities, the entrepreneurial impulses of the airlines, or good jobs for thousands of workers were not relevant. He just had one idea: the government is wasting our money that it shouldn’t even have.
My seatmate looked educated, worldly, and alert. But his response to American life was a mindless repetition of the anti-government propaganda campaign, financed by some of the richest capitalists in the world.
There is much wrong with our big government, at all levels. There is corruption, just as there is in big business. There is incompetence, although I am not sure that anything our government has done could compare to the incompetence of the bankers who caused the housing market disaster. There is waste, probably more than in the private sector, where cutting costs is a higher priority than in public spending. It would be useful to all of us to have a frank and thoughtful discussion of what our governments could do to save money, next year and every year thereafter.
Thus far conservatives are not contributing to such a discussion. Their one-sided propaganda is not about what has to improve, but about how bad government is. I can remember when critics of big government were told by conservatives to “love it or leave it”. If conservatives today have nothing good to say about our government, why don’t they take their own advice, and let the rest of us figure out how to make our great country even better?
Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).
Republished with permission from Taking Back Our Lives.