Why I Hate Government — And I’m Not Too Crazy About Bob Garfield, Either

“The stupid — it hurts!” That’s just a figure of speech, to be sure, but in some cases it’s almost literally true. Bob Garfield’s Valentine for Big Government (“I Luv Big Gov,” Slate, Feb. 15) comes extremely close. Hard right-wingers are easier to take. They love the awful things government does because they’re awful people. They know government is about uniformed thugs pushing people around and murdering them, and they revel in it, because they view the world through a Hobbesian, red-in-tooth-and-claw prism. Center-left goo-goos, on the other hand, try to frame it in positive, nurturing “Why Mommy is a Democrat” terms, and it’s positively gut-churning.

The worst of it is that Garfield, like most center-left types, is unable to discern how intimately intertwined what he regards as the “good” stuff (the Louisiana Purchase, “protection from terrorists,” etc.) is with what he considers “mistakes” (a century of defending slavery, the CIA overthrowing governments, etc.).

Garfield praises the government for “ending slavery,” while reckoning its previous defense of slavery as something it must not answer for. But the defense of slavery was inherent in the nature of the original constitutional arrangement and would likely have persisted indefinitely if not for a series of unlikely accidents. The abolition of slavery was entirely the result of those accidents. The Democrats in 1860 were a dominant pro-slavery party, and showed every indication of remaining so for the foreseeable future. They lost only because the absolutely batcrap paranoid pro-slavery fanatics split with the moderately pro-slavery majority and handed the presidential election to Lincoln. And even with Lincoln in office, they would have been assured a permanent Democratic majority in Congress that would have relegated Lincoln to one lame duck term and the GOP to a footnote in history, had not the pro-slavery fanatics in the Deep South been stupid enough to secede and give the Republicans a governing majority. The U.S. government in the 1850s was a powerful bulwark in defense of slavery, with strong fugitive slave laws, censorship of abolitionist propaganda in the mails, and a gag order on Senate debate. And so it would have remained indefinitely, if not for the utter self-destructive stupidity of the pro-slavery forces themselves.

Likewise, it’s absolutely dumbfounding that Garfield fails to see the connection between the “good’ Louisiana Purchase, bad slavery and the bad Trail of Tears. The main interest Jefferson was promoting with the Purchase was that of agriculturalists in the Old Southwest who wanted free navigation on the Mississippi and a secure outlet through New Orleans for their cash crop exports (like, for instance, cotton). You know, the same farmers whose greed for the land of the Five Civilized Tribes Andrew Jackson was later to accommodate.

As for that “guaranteeing westward expansion” business, where do I begin? Um, I really shouldn’t have to point this out, but there were actually people already living in the Louisiana Territory. And the proceeds of the sale were used by Napoleon to finance the large-scale massacre of slaves fighting for their freedom in Haiti.

Garfield, like most clueless liberals, praises as “progressive” government measures undertaken entirely to serve plutocratic and big business interests, like Hamilton’s “paying off debt from the Revolutionary War.” Um, yeah, leftist historians Charles Beard and Merrill Jensen had a little something to say about taxing dirt farmers to pay off Revolutionary war bonds at face value, when the rich speculators who held them had bought them at a depreciated value of a few pence on the pound.

The “progressive” Transcontinental Railroad was perhaps the single biggest corporate welfare program in U.S. history, funded not only by government bonds but by the giveaway of land grants to the railroads equivalent to the area of France. The growth of the centralized corporate economy in the late 19th century, and the integration of electrical power into giant mass-production factories instead of decentralized local industrial districts as would otherwise have taken place, was a direct outcome of subsidized long-distance shipping.

The Homestead Act wasn’t a “land redistribution program.” The rightful owners of Western land — the genuinely vacant part that wasn’t already rightfully owned by native people, that is — would have been the sodbusters who homesteaded it without anybody’s permission. Instead, the U.S. government engrossed what had been Mexican state land in the Guadalupe-Hidalgo cession and selectively allowed settlers to homestead a limited part of it, while holding the rest in reserve for railroad land grants, or to lease on preferential terms at sweetheart prices to logging, mining, oil and ranching interests. So U.S. government land policy, to the extent it allowed any homesteading at all, simply allowed what would have spontaneously occurred anyway while charging tribute for it. Most of the distribution was actually a welfare program for extractive industries.

The reference to HSBC’s criminal “abetting of drug cartels’ money laundering” is especially comical. Know who else has an interest in laundered drug money? The CIA, which uses it to support black ops around the world like funding death squads in Central America.

The juxtaposition of “protection against terror” and “mistakes” like CIA government overthrows is also pretty chuckalicious. If it weren’t for the US record of overthrowing governments and supporting military dictatorships and death squads all over the world — all in the interest of protecting global corporations against local interference — and being the single most faithful ally and funder of the Apartheid state occupying Palestine since 1948, there wouldn’t be any terrorists to defend against.

The government doesn’t “protect the public against monopolies.” It creates monopolies by legally restricting competition. It was subsidized infrastructure projects like the national railroad system, civil aviation (created entirely with government funds) and the Interstate that enabled companies to externalize their long-distance shipping and wholesale costs on the public and consolidate on a national scale. It was “intellectual property” law that enabled corporations to cartelize their industries through the exchange and pooling of patents (as did GE and Westinghouse), and it’s patents and trademarks today that enable transnational corporations to maintain control over goods actually produced in independent sweatshops and add a $200 Swoosh markup to sneakers that cost $5 to produce in Vietnam.

In one case, Garfield actually touches on the truth — only he thinks it’s A Good Thing. He refers to the role of government in promoting what he falsely calls “free enterprise,” by providing subsidized infrastructure and socializing the cost of reproducing human resources for wage-slaving corporations. Yeah, it sure does. But I think propping up the domination of Big Business is A Bad Thing.

And what about all those social safety net programs? They’re a secondary counter-measure, an order of magnitude smaller, to offset the massive amounts of money the corporate ruling class extracts from workers and consumers by way of monopoly rents enforced by the state. Large corporations and the plutocracy extract wealth from workers, consumers and taxpayers on a historically unprecedented scale, all with the direct aid and collusion of the United States goverment — and then the government takes a small fraction of the stolen loot and gives back just enough to prevent the very worst forms of starvation and homelessness from reaching politically destabilizing levels and threatening the survival of corporate capitalism. Gee, thanks, Uncle Sam!

The state is the executive committee of an economic ruling class. Anything good it does for ordinary people is a side-effect of the bad stuff it does, or an attempt to partially clean up the mess it created in promoting the interests of the corporations that control it. Liberals don’t get this. Genuine leftists, like us left-libertarians, do.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory