In today’s Outlook, Alec MacGillis argues that national health care reform would be a significant redistribution of resources from “blue” states to “red” ones. The reason why is that health coverage numbers are far grimmer in Republican states, particularly in the South – shocking, I know.
While I tend to agree with MacGillis’s observation about distribution, this dynamic isn’t limited to health care. It actually extends far beyond that context.
In fact, modern American conservatism itself can be understood as a byproduct of "liberal" redistribution policies. What I mean is that liberal federal policies subsidize modern conservative ideology. In this respect, the ideology is a luxury item made possible by a strong, if often invisible, foundation of liberal federal policies.
As the MacGillis piece notes, southern state governments like Texas have been historically “stingy” with their benefits. The idealistic spin on this is that these states believe in liberty and limited government and the other bulletpoints listed on the Cato brochure. The more cynical take is that their governments have been structured to serve the interests of the wealthy and big business through its tax code, labor laws, regulatory regimes, etc.
Unfortunately, a lot of working and middle-class people don’t agree with the latter interpretation (especially if they’re white). They tend to think of themselves as small government people. And political leaders like Jindal and Sanford and Palin sell themselves using this idealistic “small government” narrative.
My own view, however, is that the American public doesn’t really understand the full implications of “small government” ideology. Simply put, they like it only because they’ve never had to endure it.
The federal government provides a huge (if inadequate) safety net that effectively limits the damage that red state governments can inflict on their people. For instance, the state governments can’t eliminate Social Security. They can’t eliminate wage guarantees and safety regulations. They can’t eliminate Medicare or Medicaid (though they try). They can’t reduce the marginal income rate to 15% for all people.
In short, there are a number of entrenched federal policies that prevent the full implications of “small government” ideology from playing out. If, however, Americans actually got a taste of a world with fully privatized Social Security, or with significant elimination of environmental regulations, conservatism would soon become a wholly discredited ideology.
So it’s important to understand that the Jindal/Sanford posturing about the stimulus – along with the extreme and absurd “sovereignty” resolution proposals – all take place on top of an invisible safety net. Liberal policies allow this posturing to happen because people understand that the potential damage will be limited. The fact that small government ideology is so ineffective is, ironically enough, one reason why it’s proven so politically successful.
It would be nice, though, if more southern electorates realized how dramatically federal intervention has improved their lives – and sustained their economies. But I won't be holding my breath.