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Limited Government Leads to Unlimited Ruin

by J. Michael Atherton

The first plank in the NH Republican platform reads “We, the people of the New Hampshire Republican Party, do stand united in our dedication to preserving freedom, limited government and unlimited opportunity for all.” We may hear this theme a great deal if governor Sununu mounts a presidential campaign. Since the NH GOP platform uses the term “limited” twice in the document, let’s explore what they want to limit and why. We can start ironically with what they won’t limit,

Not military spending, since they demand increases for the military at every budget. Not border control agencies because they want billions for border walls. Neither a Republican Presidency nor Republican Congress for obvious reasons. Not a conservative Supreme Court because it does their bidding. Not the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) when disasters strike a Republican state as witnessed when Florida’s governor DeSantis demanded help when Florida was hit. Not the Weights and Measures Division because their business constituents can’t work if someone has their thumb on the scale. Not the Federal Aviation Administration because businesses need safe and dependable air travel. Not Commerce because trade needs predictability, not anarchy.

Governor Sununu’s budget offers an excellent example of how his dogma of limited government will shrink our economy, harm our health, and spoil our land, all while he makes a few cronies wealthy.

The list continues because even small government promoters rely on well-trained, experienced, and motivated government investigators, regulators, analysts, scientists, accountants, and others for many aspects of life at every moment of the day. What the Republican Party doesn’t want, what they would “limit,” is any part of government that does not increase business profits even if those government agencies directly help people in need.

The Republican Party historically and today continues to prioritize business profits over serving the needs of the people. By trying to infantilize government the party does the heavy lifting for corporations who want their hands free of government regulations, even as individuals need government protections against corporate power. Republican leaders hide their servant-to-corporations status behind words like “freedom” and “independence.” Waving these terms around, they try to hide their false dichotomy: either small government or prosperity. This dichotomy is screamingly false because the historical record shows us that when we size government appropriately for the task at hand we have had long periods of prosperity. The only thing limited in Republican thinking is their thinking

Perhaps they don’t trust government. If so, whom do they trust? It seems they easily trust business, corporations, and companies of all stripes. How odd. Have they not read any history of corporate malfeasance, of businesses polluting our air and water? What about the industrial chemicals dumped into land where they built homes in Love Canal? Have they never heard of the robber barons whose monopolies ran roughshod over state laws and left human misery in their wake? What of Enron? Now we have Wells Fargo agents intimidating customers into buying financial instruments they don’t need.

While the history of business transgressions runs long and deep, it also remains true that many businesses are quite good. Nevertheless, given their mixed history, businesses should never receive a blank check of trust from any party, even the GOP. But Republican policy makers’ “limitation bias” grows ever more delusional the deeper you look.

Governor Sununu’s budget offers an excellent example of how his dogma of limited government will shrink our economy, harm our health, and spoil our land, all while he makes a few cronies wealthy. He proposes to eliminate licensing requirements for Licensed Nursing Assistants (against legislative study results), foresters (ignoring the complexities of forest supervision and advice of supervisors), psychologists, medical technologists, and more than 25 other groups who at present must prove they have the professional knowledge to serve and protect the people of our state. His abolition of governmental responsibility to protect citizens from shoddy, dangerous, and incompetent workers represents the tip of the wedge that will grow ever-larger should the GOP dream to shackle the government come true. Limited government leaves us vulnerable.

“Limited” government folks live in a fantasy world. Stay with me on this. They must believe in one of two things, neither of which is reasonable, sane, or non-fantastic. They must believe that the government must never make any quick decisions. Or, if they agree that governments must act quickly, they must think the government can immediately scale up to face sudden challenges without preparation. Such thinking reveals their fantasy world because everyone else understands that expertise needs time and practice, witness the constant need for military preparedness. A government shackled or shrunken cannot immediately grow the experience needed to face challenges. We need, for example, an organized FEMA-in-waiting because disasters strike suddenly and we must be prepared. Small government advocates must live in a dream world that says either we can scale up on a moment’s notice or that we will never need to scale our efforts to face disasters when they inevitably appear. In their constant attempts to hamstring our government the GOP promotes a deluded and dangerous choice.

“Let’s be clear. The failure of Silicon Valley Bank is a direct result of an absurd 2018 bank deregulation bill signed by Donald Trump...Five years ago, the Republican Director of the Congressional Budget Office released a report finding that this legislation would ‘increase the likelihood that a large financial firm with assets of between $100 billion and $250 billion would fail.’” - Senator Bernie Sanders Photos: Above: Library of Congress; Lower: OSV/News/Nathan Frandino, Reuters)

The ultimate effect of the small government people’s endless nagging is to slow America’s responses to challenges we must address and weaken our government in the face of tragedy. We cannot afford the cost of their limited government zealotry. Their uncompromising and unrelenting demand to restrict government would leave our entire nation sluggish and vulnerable.

At bottom, Republican “limited” government demand rests on a false and misleading belief: They want to run government like a business. This wrongheaded belief fails even a cursory examination. Business thinking can never replace government because business and government serve different masters. Government runs a nation for general prosperity, safety, health, and progress in the present and the future. Business exclusively follows the profit motive for itself. A few examples of the division of labor between government and business might help.

Government spends for the common good. Each business spends for its own good. Government defends the entire nation. Each business defends itself. Government shields all citizens. Each business shields its own profits. Government safeguards our environment. Each business safeguards its assets. Government funds public, transparent research. Businesses fund proprietary, wholly-owned, and private research. Government builds public roadways. Businesses build tollways.

Let’s be clear. This division of labor works well, as long as we don’t follow GOP advice to mix them up. Government, for example, should no more make our clothes or cereal than businesses should investigate the stock market or run union negotiations. Each has its place.

We should follow the principle of subsidiarity where we use the most appropriate level of government or business to address any given problem. It’s as silly to require the military to curb littering as it is to use a city police force to defend our borders. It’s also as silly to have corporations supply local preserves as it is to have a backyard garage produce cars. When asked about the appropriate size of government, we should never use the knee-jerk answer of the GOP to support small government. Instead, we must ask the real question: what’s the best size of government to accomplish any given task?

GOP dogma of limited government makes government sluggish, weak, and unable to defend citizens against corporate power. A weakened government cannot resist the invasion of our state by powerful, dangerous, and unscrupulous actors because it removes the government that is the only entity with the power, knowledge, and legal status to protect every Granite Stater. Limited government is social suicide, economic insanity, damaging to health, and an environmental disaster. GOP limited government will sacrifice our safety and security to serve their corporate masters. Following GOP limited government ideology leads to unlimited ruin.

About the author

J. Michael Atherton (Mike) has retired from 30 years of teaching philosophy (after 20 years of teaching a variety of subjects from elementary to graduate school). He spent four years in the Peace Corps in Swaziland (now Eswatini), followed by marriage to Cynthia Walter, the birth of their first child, and a PhD all at the University of Chicago. They moved to Southwest Pennsylvania where Cynthia taught ecology and he taught philosophy while they raised two daughters. They moved to Dover in 2019 to be near their two grandsons in Maine. He has consistently found the Dems to be a group that publicly and privately follows their stated values: compassion, honesty, integrity, respect the dignity of all people, expanded freedom, responsible citizenship, promoting civil society, and protecting our environment. And they are great fun to be around. A winning combination!

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