A Guide to Rebutting Right-Wing Criticisms of Government
We think we know government, but we really do not. As
Americans we have come to view government primarily through a set of negative stereotypes – such as “government is wasteful,” “big government impinges on our freedoms,” “government undermines business,” and “most government programs fail.” These negative images are being constantly promoted by conservative politicians and pundits who are trying to justify their campaign to drastically reduce government. But it turns out that these popular images of government are only tenuously rooted in reality. If we take a careful look at these typical conservative criticisms of government, we find that most of them are actually exaggerated, misleading, or often simply wrong. For example, many Americans have come to believe that the government wastes forty-eight cents of every tax dollar. In reality, studies show that the amount of waste is more like two cents for every dollar – hardly an alarming figure.
Many of the articles on this website take on and refute these misleading stereotypes about government. What follows is a brief guide to the common right-wing criticisms of government and why they are largely off the mark. The left hand column contains the complaint, and the right hand column contains a brief rebuttal and a link to the article that explains more fully why the complaint is flawed. As you make you way through these issues, I think you may find that much of what you think is wrong with government – and what conservatives keep telling you is wrong – is simply mistaken. This is not to say that there is nothing wrong with this government – only that it is not what conservatives say it is. (For a different view of the problems of government, see “What is Really Wrong with Government.”)
Conservative Criticisms of Government
Government is inept and most government policies fail.
A look at the record shows that most government programs work well and have helped considerably to mitigate society’s problems and improve our lives.
Bureaucracies are immensely wasteful.
Studies show that most government bureaucracies are not very wasteful.
Government only interferes with the efficient operation of a market economy. Capitalism would be better off without government.
Free-market capitalism could not exist without an active government that provides the extensive legal infrastructure that creates and regulates markets and that enables corporations to do business.
Government is the problem. Its programs create more problems than they solve.
Government policies are the source of few of our serious societal problems. Problems like poverty, pollution, and lack of health care have their sources in the private sector – not the public sector.
The more government programs we have, the less freedom we have.
Most government programs – such as fire protection, building roads, food stamps, public education, funding scientific research, and Social Security – do virtually nothing to restrict our individual freedoms.
The main threat to our civil liberties comes from big government.
Government can sometimes threaten our civil liberties. But on a day-to-day basis, most of us face more serious threats to our civil liberties – such as our rights to privacy and free speech – in our workplaces in the private sector.
The less government we have, the more liberty we have.
Government institutions, like the courts, are the primary way we protect our rights and liberties. Government has also been the main way to expand our rights and freedoms.
If the function of government is simply to provide services, we know that the market is much better at doing that.
Government is not simply a provider of services, it is a collective moral endeavor that enable us to promote the common good. It is a public space in which we debate moral questions and try to decide on what is good for society. The market cannot perform this function – it is not an ethical enterprise.
Most Americans dislike government and would like to reduce it.
Polls reveal that large majorities do not want to cut back on most key government programs, including healthcare, environmental protection, education, retirement security, business regulation, etc. Many would like to see more government activity in these areas.
We’ve reached the limit of what government programs can do to improve the lives of Americans, so we should halt government growth.
The record of government programs in other Western democracies show that there is much more our government can do to make Americans safer, healthier, more economically secure, etc.
Most Americans hate paying taxes and want to see them reduced.
Polls show that most people don’t mind paying taxes; and instead of cutting taxes they would rather spend that money on education, defense, health, etc.
Government is bad because politicians tend to be corrupt or incompetent.
While some politicians are certainly worthy of scorn, the institution of democratic government is not – it continues to perform crucial and valuable functions in our society.
Government bureaucracies usually provide poor service to the public.
Studies show that Americans rate the quality of service from most public agencies as being on par with that of private businesses.
Churches and private charities could take the place of government in addressing many social problems.
The amount of money raised by churches and charities is not nearly enough to address wide-scale problems like poverty, hunger, lack of health care, etc. And in practice, only a small portion of the money these institutions collect actually goes to help those in need.
Government taxes have been increasing at a precipitous rate.
Government taxes as a portion of gross domestic product have not grown at all since the mid-1970s.
Most of the taxes that we pay go to programs that benefit others – such as welfare and foreign aid – not programs that help average Americans like us.
Welfare and foreign aid make up less than 3% of the federal budget. The government spends most of its money on programs like Social Security and Medicare that benefit all of us.
Only a liberal would think that government is good.
Most Americans, including many moderates and conservatives, support important government programs like education and environmental protection. People of all political persuasions can appreciate what government does to improve their lives.
Government taxes are a large drag on economic growth.
Comparative studies show little relationship between a society’s level of taxes and its rate of economic growth. High taxes and healthy economic growth can go together.
The less taxes individuals pay, the more money they have and the more economically secure they are.
Americans are facing more economic risks than ever. Government programs are our main means for collectivizing risks and greatly increasing our economic security.
Government is inefficient and should be run more like a business.
We often don’t want government to act like a business and spend the least amount possible to provide crucial services like airport security, highway safety, etc.
Over the last thirty years, Americans have become increasingly conservative and wary of government.
Polls show that since the 1970s, Americans have not grown more conservative – nor have they become generally more negative about government and its programs.
Government is inherently coercive, so it should be kept to a minimum.
Government coercion is often necessary to promote the common good and to create an ordered, prosperous, and just society.
Government just keeps growing by itself – to satisfy the needs of power-hungry politicians and bureaucrats.
Government has more often grown because citizens have demanded more services and better programs to solve society’s problems.
Government is the enemy of business.
Government provides billions in subsidies to business, both in obvious ways, such as tax breaks, but also in less obvious ways, such as in infrastructure investment.
Americans are overtaxed and are in dire need of more tax cuts.
Americans already have some of the lowest tax rates among Western developed countries.
Government regulations often cost more than the benefits they produce.
The benefits to society from regulations almost always outweigh their economic costs.
Limited government is the reason why we are more prosperous and better off than people in European countries.
In many ways, we are worse off than Europeans who enjoy the benefits of more active government. We have more poverty, less economic security, higher crime rates, no universal health care, less economic mobility, etc. And many of these countries have healthy economies that rival our own.
Taxes are bad – and so they should be kept to a minimum.
Taxes are good – they are what enable government to solve problems and improve the lives of all Americans.