Onward Stephen Harper! Lead us to the socialist Utopia! If you follow the right-wing punditry, you’d think comrades Harper, Obama, Brown and the like are leading us along that slippery slope to – gasp! -- socialism. Not that any of these leaders has a nice word to say about socialism; they don’t. But the more alarmist fringes of the right wing depict government response to the economic crisis as a Trojan horse. As the government becomes involved in forestalling economic calamity, they warn that opportunists will soon exploit the crisis to promote a creeping socialism.
This hysteria stems from one of the most bizarre – but effective – misconceptions that the right wing has been able to perpetuate in public discourse: the idea that “big” government is a left-wing conspiracy.
In their backlash against the welfare state, right-wingers reviled government as a stultifying force that smothered good old capitalist ingenuity with taxes, regulations, and social programs. Downsizing government became a neoliberal mantra. Thus a perniciously convenient equation was promoted: that big government equals socialism, while small government equals capitalism.
But “big” government is not easily categorized as a left or right concept. The size and range of activities of government oscillate for lots of reasons. Sometimes government gets “bigger” in response to popular demands (say, the creation of new social programs). But sometimes government gets “bigger” to pander to business. Business élites love government programs that provide cheap loans (many of which never seem to get repaid), train workers, subsidize research and development, or promote exports on the government’s dime. Ironically, the patron saint of “big” government is arguably Ronald Reagan, who enormously increased government spending (and left a legacy of public debt) to feed the U.S. military machine.
The term “big government” persists as a schizophrenic double standard. New programs that help the bottom line of business are endorsed by the business punditocracy as wise investments in competitiveness. Government programs that help the bottom lines of the rest of us are pejoratively denounced as “big government.” Hello, George Orwell! What is good for business is in the public interest, but what is proposed as good for anybody else is the self-serving whining of special interest groups.
The current economic crisis has shifted rhetoric, but the wacky double standard persists. Card-carrying opponents of “big” government have squeamishly conceded that government must intervene big-time before capitalism hits the fan.
These crusaders against “big” government are now obliged to do some fancy rhetorical footwork. Their new lingo focuses on “where to draw the line.” Judicious government intervention is supposed to reinstate the economic status quo (okay, maybe with a few new regulations to prevent further corporate intrigue from making a bad economic situation worse). Just make sure that nothing permanently shifts power away from business.
What is the right’s ideal fiscal stimulation plan? Use public money to rescue business while imposing painful concessions on workers. Of course, this requires the uber-Orwellian feat of deflecting any blame for economic crisis from management to workers. (Unbelievably, spin doctors have scored big in their attempt to blame the auto workers for Detroit’s problems). Better yet, attack unions. If unions are on their knees, workers will be much less likely to win back some of what they have sacrificed if their employers recover.
But what if government action to avert economic crisis encompasses any notion of the public interest that extends beyond restoring the old economic status quo? It is deemed to have “crossed the line.” If you argue that public money carries with it the obligation to pursue something beyond a narrow pro-corporate agenda (say, dealing with economic inequality or meeting environmental goals) then get ready to be unfavourably compared with Josef Stalin.
The Harper stimulus plan is crafted to steer well clear of crossing the line. Sure, under intense pressure from the opposition, the Conservatives increased spending—although not as fast or as much as Conservative spinmeisters would have you believe. But what is the government spending money on? Things like infrastructure.Business groups are okay with that: they have been crying out that aging infrastructure is hampering Canadian competitiveness. But making meaningful repairs to the gaping holes in unemployment insurance is the last thing Harper wants. A stingy EI system helps to keep the balance of power tilted in favour of employers.
Since Harper has been able to spend money that is supportive of his allies, his right-wing credentials remain intact. But any government that dares to spend money that really helps those who are suffering has “crossed the line.”
We need to move beyond labels that have hidden and unhelpful political meanings. Rhetoric is a fun-house mirror (seriously—does anyone really believe that Harper’s last budget means he has moved to the left?). The key is to analyze who benefits from government action, not to get mesmerized by words that the pundits and the PR machines are throwing around. This is not about “big” (or “small”) government, or more (or less) spending. It is about looking at each policy to see the agendas behind the labels.
(Ellen Russell is a CCPA senior economist.)