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The Conservative Illusion

ISSUE:  Spring 1983

The slogan which, more than any other, sums up the appeal of the Reagan administration is its outcry against “big government.” Its constant contention is that government has become too cumbersome, too intrusive, imposing too many regulations; that government recklessly and needlessly interferes in areas best left to individual decision. A reduction of such government, the Reaganites proclaim, will dissolve the pains and discomforts in our society, restore our freedoms, solve our national problems, and bring us back to a condition where America is “great” again, as it was, presumably, in simpler and happier times. This verbal assault on “big government” has become, in fact, the all-pervasive political cliché of the mass media, a ritualistic incantation, iterated so many times, and in so many ways, that it has become, by sheer repetition, an unexamined argument, a knee-jerk response, part of the conventional wisdom that floods television. Hence it is too often accepted as one of life’s truisms. Moreover, many in the mass media have not only seen the presidency of Ronald Reagan as the embodiment of the truth of that cliché but have defined his political success as the expression of a resurgent conservatism, a conservative ideology defined, supposedly, as a principled campaign to destroy the evils of “big government.”

In fact, closer examination indicates that the conservative attack on big government reflects acute mental laziness and a self-indulgent irresponsibility, combining equal parts of herd thinking, wishful fantasies, and shameless scapegoating. Most of all, it constitutes an unwillingness to confront the hard realities of our society. In actuality, the “conservatism” which presumably underlies, explains, and justifies this crusade to eliminate big government is so intellectually confused, so filled with contradictions that it can hardly be taken seriously as an “ideology.”

Not that the attack on big government is an illusion; complaints about big government express a very real anger, a very profound dissatisfaction. The point is that this anger is seriously misdirected when it focuses simplistically on government, divorced from any understanding of the historical processes, the social needs and demands, which produced big government in the first place. In conservative mythology, the federal government has grown for no reason, as a result of either sheer willfulness or malign perverseness on the part of corrupt Washington politicians and bureaucrats seized by an unexplained desire to spend a lot of money wastefully. It is as if such recalcitrant realities as the industrial revolution, the two world wars, the Great Depression, the urbanization of America, the Cold War, and all those historical processes that have shaped our modern nation had never occurred—or were utterly irrelevant to the growth of a national government.

When people complain about big government, they are really complaining about the nature of modern industrial society, with its gigantic institutions, its myriad regulations and disciplines, its exhausting tempos, its at times incomprehensible complexities, a reality of which the phenomenon of big government is only one aspect. Big government is symptomatic of the fact that modern society is dependent on an unbelievably far-reaching and complex organizational and institutional network. Every personal need, every want we satisfy, practically every action we take, our very ability to survive are dependent, with few exceptions, on a tremendously complex production and delivery system that extends not only across the nation but, in many cases, across the entire world. Our lives are almost totally dependent on support systems that span huge distances and involve hordes of people in closely meshed interdependence. The stability, social peace, and tranquility, without which these systems could not function, and the “law and order” necessary in a highly technological, crowded, urban society also impose a severe regimen of institutional discipline, control, and regulation. We live, in short, in a very collective, very organized society in which we are all interdependent, in which the welfare and safety of each individual is totally dependent on the health and welfare of that collective enterprise we call the American nation and on all the global systems to which our nation is attached.

Government is more than the symptom of that complexity, of that interdependence. It is the institutional means by which we respond to the collective character of modern society, by which we perform all those tasks which are systemic and beyond the reach of single individuals. The role of government has grown, and government has become bigger and more centralized not because we have become careless of our freedoms or morally deficient in our commitment to individualism but because none of the important tasks that need to be done in our nation today can be done individually. From the growing of our food to the delivery of manufactured goods, from the generation of energy to housing construction, from national defense to transportation, from traffic control to the maintenance of a stable currency, the satisfaction of all our needs depends on the smooth functioning of that production and delivery system, that social support system we call America. The Union is hardly a simple collection of separate, unconnected “free” individuals who happen to inhabit the same continent.

Living in such a collective system, satisfying so many of our wants through that system, we cannot escape the need for centralized, bureaucratized management, based on knowledge of how all the pieces in the system fit together and affect each other. Central government, “big government,” if you will, is one of the institutional means through which we perform those tasks of integration, coordination, and planning which the individual cannot do. This is not because he is lazy or lacking in the “work ethic” or because he wants “everything done for him.” The individual American simply has no means for coming to grips with the collective aspects of the system. Government does what needs to be done collectively, what we do together, what we cannot do individually. Everything basic to our survival is the expression of that collective identity; and all our most severe social and economic problems reflect breakdowns in the system, beyond the capacity of any individual, no matter how “rugged,” to repair. Rephrasing an old saying, if big government did not exist, it would have to be invented.

There is, in fact, something profoundly artificial about the conservative attack on big government, for it totally ignores the functional role of government. Government is not something which is just there by some accident. It is not an instrument we can elect to use or not use as the whim strikes us, deciding, at times, that a task would be better performed by “private” enterprise. Government exists by necessity. It is the means by which, historically, society administers, coordinates, and plans for the system. The question is not how much, or how little, government there should be, according to some moral criterion in which government is defined as evil. The question is, what are the necessary tasks of integration, administration, and planning required in our society. Government is merely one name we give to the institutional means we devise to perform those tasks.

If we turned more of the aifairs of society over to the “private” sector, if private corporations performed the tasks of government, they would then be, in fact, the government. But it would remain just as big, regulatory, and “intrusive” as it is now. In fact, such private corporations as Exxon, General Motors, ITT, or IBM, do perform such tasks of organization and planning. They are just as much a part of the structure of institutional administration and control that regulates society. They are themselves gigantic bureaucracies, not significantly different from government bureaucracies. The two sets of institutions are parallel and interchangeable, as can be demonstrated by the fact that the federal bureaucracy, particularly at its highest levels, is recruited primarily from corporate bureaucracies, a fact that throws into serious question the claim that corporations are crushed by the regulatory activities of the federal bureaucracy. Then, too, the individual American finds his life just as much dominated by institutional, bureaucratic gigantism. It is just as difficult to find room for individuality, regardless of whether one confronts the major private corporations or the federal government.

The basic difference between the two bureaucracies is that the corporate manager in the “private” sector must, by definition, be concerned primarily with his own piece of the overall system. He is not as capable, functionally, of taking that overall perspective of the system. That is the responsibility of national government, an institution which, by definition, concerns itself not with the personal or partial welfare of one part of the system. Rather it has responsibility for what the Constitution calls “the general welfare.” The real choice we face in America today is not one between the “public” and “private” sectors, of more or less government. It is, rather, one of performing the necessary tasks of regulation, coordination, and planning on which the survival of our society depends or barely doing them at all. The fundamental assumption of this essay is that the second choice, which appears to be the “conservative” alternative, represents a serious flight from reality.


It is undeniable that the large, bureaucratic organizations on which our lives have come to depend are increasingly insensitive, self-serving, and unresponsive to human needs—failings which affect all bureaucratic institutions, as much in the “private” as in the “public” sector, as anyone can attest who has tried to break through the computer barrier of any large corporation and find a human voice to address. The failure of our bureaucracies to function effectively, or democratically, cannot be cured, though, by pretending we can dispense entirely with the functions they perform, returning to local levels of authority and accountability. This would be as if the peoples of New York and California, Texas and Idaho, lived in self-sufficient isolation from each other; as if problems of unemployment or inflation were local problems that permitted of local solutions; as if job layoffs in Michigan were unrelated to economic events in California or Georgia, or, for that matter, Japan; as if high prices or high interest rates in Ohio had nothing to do with fiscal and monetary decisions made in New York or West Germany.

All our most serious social ills are systemic breakdowns, resulting not from too much but from too little government. That is, they result from insufficient planning, an unwillingness to think through all the varied consequences that any particular decision within our system—by a car company, an oil company, a highway building program, a tobacco planter, or the Federal Reserve Board—will send through the entire social fabric. Most of our major social problems result from planning failures, failures of anticipation, to foresee how the well-being of one sector of the system will be affected by decisions made in another sector. The helter-skelter attack of the Reagan administration on the federal budget is, in fact, a typical example of our apparent inability to produce longrange perspectives on our national problems. Our elected politicians are all too susceptible to the “quick fix,” designed to alleviate our ailments in the short run, but they seem incapable of designing solutions that address basic flaws. It is the penny-wise and pound-foolish approach that produces, for instance, the current panic about federal spending, cutting investments in many areas vital to the future welfare of America. A most striking example is the cutback in education, seriously weakening the collective brain power which is the most basic source of America’s strength, out of some superstitious and quite unobjective notion that the government has been “fiscally irresponsible.” At the same time, we continue to do too little too late about such long-term problems as those afflicting our transportation systems, energy consumption, conservation of resources, environmental pollution, urban decay and urban crime, illiteracy and alienation, job retraining, and capital investment in an economy significantly different from what it was 50 years ago. And we seem to be just beginning to realize our increasing technological and scientific backwardness, a dilemma which can hardly be resolved by further screaming about the evils of the “welfare state.”

The hardcore conservative alternative to intelligent, comprehensive planning is not to do more but to do nothing at all. It is to define short-sighted selfishness and greedy thoughtlessness as “freedom,” based on the superficially attractive but profoundly irresponsible fantasy that we can enjoy, with far less government, all the benefits of our incredibly complex society, including all the real freedoms which progress brings in its train. But we are to do all this, attain all this without paying any of the costs in regulations, disciplines, and the need for cooperative planning that so sophisticated a system requires. Such “conservatism” might best be denned as the politics of selfishness, the belief that we can act in an incredibly intermeshed social system without regulations; that is, without thought for consequences. We can allow a corporation to dump chemical wastes and seriously endanger the health of our society or permit an individual to insist on his right to a gas guzzler, without thought for its impact on the environment, all in the name of “freedom.”

The hardcore conservative attack on big government assumes that because the system is not working well, we should stop trying to make it work altogether. Yet given the complexity of modern industrial society, a failure to perform the necessary tasks of government will result not in a return to “freedom,” but in a literal collapse of our system. Since there are too many Americans, including conservatives, who cannot afford the consequences of such a collapse, the conservative attack on big government does not really result in less government. It gives us, instead, a big government that is less intelligent, less responsible, and less humane—government not for the people but for the “Fat Cat.”


The conservative conception of government is based on a definition of freedom which is at best a romantic fallacy and at worst a short-sighted and hypocritical exercise in selfishness, an immature illusion which equates freedom with unbridled egotism. There are an absence of external restraints and a disregard for the welfare of the total system of which each one of us is a part. All human life, of course, depends on a network of social interdependence, social regulations. Man, as Aristotle noted, is a social being; nowhere, and at no time, is he the self-sufficient hero of the myth of “rugged individualism.” But modern industrial society has pushed this social interdependence to an extreme. The inhabitants of a modern industrial society are more dependent, and in more ways, on a social system much more complex than those of older, traditional societies. That dependence can be illustrated by the chaos produced in any large modern urban center by no more than the malfunctioning of the generators that supply that city with electricity.

At the same time, the progress of industrial societies, although it demands great social disciplines and regulations, also results in real increases in freedom, a greatly expanded range of choices for the individual. Someone has defined freedom as the power to command events; that power is enormously enhanced in modern, industrial societies. Nevertheless, that enhanced power is lodged in the collective whole, the social system we call the American nation. The power of an individual American to command events on his own is extremely limited; the power of the collective system, America, of which the individual is a part, is enormous; and the increased power, the increased freedom of an American is totally dependent on his membership in that larger collective whole which is his nation. America, in short, is not a mere agglomeration of unrelated individuals; it is an organized system, in which the Reaganite conservative’s definition of freedom is at once irrelevant and irresponsible.

This definition and its fundamentally irresponsible character are nowhere better reflected than in that all-pervasive mass media culture. It conditions us to see individual freedom as incompatible with social responsibility, and it considers liberty as the ability to escape the grid of regulations and disciplines within which we must all live. In mass media entertainment, the hero’s freedom is seen as his ability to exist outside the realm of social necessity. His appeal is due not so much to his adventurous or romantic life as to its lack of constraints; more accurately, his adventurousness, the glamor of his life, is defined by his ability to evade the social net which hamstrings all our lives—our dependence on jobs, families, institutions, our participation in that collective group process we call a nation.

Mass media heroes never face those practical problems that reflect our everyday dependence on the social system. They seldom have regular jobs; and even if they do, it is never made clear how they pay their bills, since their jobs are clearly not a real source of income. They very seldom eat, never go to the bathroom or do the laundry or buy groceries. They never engage in those mundane activities requiring a social support system, which is why they appear so “free.” They never face the practical consequences of unemployment, inflation, or any of those failures of the system that affect real people in such dire ways. Loss of a job is not portrayed in television land as the economic catastrophe it would be for you and me; rather it is defined as a humorous problem or a psychological difficulty. The TV breadwinner is bored, in the way, feeling unworthy, because he has no job, but he is still living, of course, in that wondrous, glamorous environment—with nary a bibelot out of place on the modernistic shelves or a throw cushion missing on the oversize living room sofa—in which all television characters reside.

The conservative myth of “rugged individualism” pervades the mass media every night, and it diverts our energies from the task of making our system work more effectively to the destructive, as well as illusory, goal of finding ways to escape our responsibility to the system altogether. This produces an irresponsibility that translates into petulant hostility against the government, a convenient scapegoat for our resentment at being unable to lead the “free”—that is, irresponsible—lives of Charley’s Angels, or the Glint Eastwood man with no name. The more avidly we soak up these mass media myths, the more vulnerable we are to the notion that if government would only get off our backs, we might approximate the irresponsibility which passes for freedom in the world of mass media entertainment.

The New Right conservative conception of freedom is, in fact, not only incoherent and irresponsible. It is equally insincere. For the same conservatives who complain so much about big government are the same people who demand the most expanded authority, the most stringent police powers for government in imposing their own concept of moral, social, and intellectual conformity on all Americans. The socalled social program of the conservatives would result in a vastly expanded government police state, a truly “big” government, controlling the most private behavior of individuals, from religion to sexual behavior, from political beliefs to freedom of thought, telling Americans what prayers they should recite, what sexual mores they should observe, what movies they should watch, what books they should read, what programs should or sho’uld not appear on television. In short, if these ultraconservatives had their way, the size of government would be truly monstrous, and every freedom of which they did not approve would be relabeled “permissiveness” and forbidden by government fiat. And “the land of the free” would be at one with Nineveh and Tyre.


The insincerity of the Reaganite diatribe against big government and the incoherence of its ideology are even more obviously demonstrated in the area of defense spending, where, while condemning modern government and demanding cuts in the federal budget, they advocate great extensions of the military sector and enormous increases in the defense budget. The consequence is a glaring contradiction in which the Pentagon can do no wrong—and its wastes go unchecked—and the welfare recipient can do no right—with his or her benefits cut to the bone. The recent Reagan budgets have been hailed for their drastic cuts in federal spending. They were nothing of the kind. They comprised, instead, a reallocation of resources, a shift in spending from social services to the defense establishment, resulting not in any real reduction in federal spending but in the biggest federal deficit in history.

The ideological incoherence cuts even deeper, for the shift from one kind of government spending to another is not simply a matter of political preference, of political priorities. Maximizing defense spending maximizes those very functions of government that thrust it toward institutional bigness, authoritarian intrusiveness, and the control and regulation o f society. It has indeed been the military or “defense” demands of a government that have been the chief factor, historically, in bringing modern industrial societies under absolute rule, that total militarization and mobilization we call totalitarianism. Totalitarian big government has everywhere developed, in this century, in response to the pressures of military necessity. Total conformity and total surrender to the superior authority of government are demanded for the sake of national strength. An increase in defense spending, in short, means an increase in all those government activities associated with its military functions, all those activities which conservatives pretend, in other circumstances, to deplore: intrusion into individual lives, assaults on privacy, thought control in the name of intelligence gathering and suppression of subversion, the imposition of ideological conformity in the name of national unity, the imposition, in short, of that same “big” government which conservatives, in other contexts, pretend to oppose.

Such measures may be necessary for national defense; but if they are, the conservative argument against big government falls totally apart, since it defines national security in ways that require the biggest government imaginable. The standard conservative answer to fears about the expanded functions and powers of the defense establishment is to enjoin us to have faith, to reassure us that the Pentagon and the various police agencies of our government will not abuse their powers. And yet these same officials, whom we are encouraged to “trust” in defense matters, become, whenever their activities inconvenience the interests of “conservatives,” interfering bureaucrats, petty tyrants who have driven America down the road to slavery.

No matter how annoying such regulatory agencies as OSHA may appear to certain individuals, they cannot possibly form the basis for a totalitarian “big” government in the same way as can the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, all those agencies of military and police control which are the familiar hallmarks of totalitarianism in this century. If the day should come when the police powers of our government have so expanded that Americans have truly been driven into slavery, the official whose knock on the door in the night will signal this final triumph of “big” government is infinitely more likely to be an official of the Pentagon or the CIA than he is to be an official of the FCC or any other “regulatory” agency.

The incoherence cuts even deeper; for our expanded defense establishment is itself the functional expression of a “conservative” view of foreign policy, which projects onto the international scene the same immaturity, the same irresponsible fantasies, the same politics of unbridled selfishness that mark what could be called “born-again conservatism” at the domestic level. The hard-line foreign policy of the Reagan administration expresses an inability to recognize the global interdependence of societies and an unwillingness to transcend the politics of national selfishness. The refusal to recognize the existence of a larger collective world interest on which each national interest depends parallels the shortsighted, tunnel vision of its domestic policies.

In foreign policy, “conservatism” is based on a simplistic definition of national interest unrelated to the needs and interests of other nations, the existence of which are seen as an unnecessary nuisance, an illegitimate obstacle to the gratification of our national wants, redefined as moral absolutes. In this fairyland, the degree to which the modern world is now an interdependent, inseparable community simply is not recognized. Whenever other national interests, other national needs cut athwart our own, right-wing conservatives reject the possibility of compromise, of adjusting our own wants to those of other nations, other peoples, branding the politics of accommodation as “appeasement.”

Such an irresponsible image of social relations is much easier for Americans to accept at the international than at the national level. In domestic affairs most Americans are aware that they are part of a collective system, one which does impose obligations, limits to the politics of unlimited selfishness. In domestic affairs Americans cannot accept totally the myth of “rugged individualism” and do recognize that individual selfishness has to be subordinated to the common good, the general welfare. Unfortunately, so many of us are so ignorant of the rest of the world, so vulnerable to racist caricatures of foreign societies, that we are easily prone to the delusion that America is a self-contained society, making no demands on the rest of the world, posing no threats to other peoples. Although Americans may pay lip service to the idea of peace, many seem to think that peace means having our way in the world. We can satisfy our own national wants without concern for other nations, who might prevent us from having our way, not out of their own needs and interests but simply out of inherent and unjustified nastiness.

The hawkish foreign policy sought by such primitive and self-serving conservatives contributes significantly, of course, to international tension, instability, and that general insecurity that in turn justifies the enormous expansion of our defense establishment. Such expansion then provokes similar military buildups in other nations, notably the Soviet Union. So we have the familiar vicious circle of the selfpropelled arms race. The search for a national security dependent entirely on one’s own military power, unrelated to the health and well being of the global community of nations, is as unrealistic as the belief that freedom can be guaranteed through unbridled egotism, unrelated to the collective needs of the society. A definition of American national interest which demands constant confrontation with the Soviet Union, which defines any attempt to find a basis of accommodation with other nations as “appeasement,” creates a need for “big” government on a scale that totally dwarfs the growth of government functions in the delivery of so-called social services.


The problem of big government is very real—and very serious—in the sense that we seem to be losing control over the giant institutions which so totally dominate our lives. “Conservatism” in its simplistic attack on government “regulation” offers no way out of our dilemmas, let alone any coherent understanding of the nature of our problems. We are not going to make our society more democratic or achieve greater freedom by pretending that a modern society can manage without giant institutions, both governmental and corporate. We can neither dispense with the functions they perform nor can we ignore the limits which history imposes upon us. Whether we like it or not, we are trapped in a world of institutional bigness, and much of the appeal of “conservatism” is simply an expression of our dislike for that “bigness,” without any understanding, however, of its inescapability. Short of managing a return to a life of subsistence agriculture—not only a manifestly impossible option but one that, if transferred from the illusory world of television Westerns to everyday reality, would appall every American— there is no secret door out of our complex, technological world back into some imagined “good old days.” The world is too crowded, and its people have become too dependent, in too many ways, on gigantic bureaucratic institutions, to dismantle, to any great extent, the phenomenon of so-called big government.

Finding ways to make our complex system work, of making institutions responsive and responsible, is no easy task. It cannot be based on the childish fantasy that each one of us can individually guarantee his freedom and security by carving out a niche within the system, defending it against all comers, without thought for social consequences. Such a selfish doctrine defines freedom as the right of the strong to satisfy their needs at the expense of the weak. Its net result is to tear apart our society even more grievously than it already is. It means no one assumes responsibility for the general welfare. The war of all against all, even if labeled euphemistically “free enterprise” will no more restore economic stability and social harmony to our nation than the international war of all against all will ever guarantee our national security. Thus those who would bring down the government generations of Americans have worked to build are reminiscent of the die-hard British Tories who vainly sought to prevent passage of the Reform Bill of 1832. Of them, a British historian later wrote: “Had they been present at the time of Creation, they would have advocated a return to Chaos.”


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