Conservatives' belief in 'small' government one of convenience

Some time ago, I heard it said that “conservatives” only hated the government when it offered people a crutch, not when it clubbed them. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Listening to most people who consider themselves conservatives (but are actually neoconservatives without knowing it), you get the impression that the military and police don’t count as part of the government. They talk a good game about “big government” and its intrusiveness, how it meddles in everything, how dangerous it is, and so forth.

For example, take Michelle Malkin. She wants a government that’s small, just big enough to perform essential functions, like rounding up a few hundred thousand of its own citizens because of their ethnic background and holding them without trial in internment camps. Bill O’Reilly doesn’t like big government, but he thinks terrorist thugs should be killed “on the spot.” So apparently a government can be acceptably “small” while holding the power to kill anyone it claims is guilty of a crime. Once, O’Reilly even defended the right of police to harass people they “knew” were guilty, when they couldn’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of a jury. Another neoconservative favorite, Sean Hannity, is second to none when it comes to denouncing “big government”, but he practically wet himself when Ted Kennedy accused Bush of lying about Iraq. Kennedy committed the heinous crime of, gasp, “calling the Commander in Chief a liar … in wartime!”

So apparently the single most powerful human being on Earth with the greatest concentration of coercive force at his disposal doesn’t count as part of the government. Government is to be distrusted. Government is to be feared. But to most “conservatives” it only counts as “government” when it’s acting within the borders of the United States. Even though the government is a stinking pit of corruption whose domestic policy serves special interests at the average citizen’s expense, when it acts overseas it suddenly becomes “us,” and it becomes un-American to question its motives. The only part of government these “conservatives” seem to like is the part that wears uniforms and carries guns. That whole approach is pretty weird, considering that coercive power is the defining feature of government. To quote George Washington, “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. Government is force; like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

The police and military make government what it is, a moral monopoly on force. Science fiction writer Poul Anderson defined government as the institution that claims the right to kill anyone who disobeys it. Without the ability to coercively enforce its will, government would just be a debating society, collecting contributions to fund worthy projects and suggesting new rules that might be a good idea for people to follow. Both liberals and conservatives, in what passes for mainstream American political discourse, are guilty of ignoring the coercive and forceful nature of government, and thinking of it as “us.” “Conservatives” are more prone to stop fearing government and think of it as “us” when it wears a uniform and beats people up; “liberals” are more prone to think of it as “us” when it co-opts forms of social cooperation that would exist anyway. It probably reflects a difference in personality types.

Republicans tend to be type-A authoritarian personalities who are always demanding that we “show” somebody or other (outsiders and dissidents) who’s boss, or “get tough” on this or that, and constantly accusing liberals of being “soft” on this or that. Democrats, on the other hand, tend to see society as a giant nursery, with a social worker going around saying, “Momma, don’t allow this! Momma, don’t allow that!”

Both sides are guilty. But at least the liberals have an internally consistent logic, because they don’t claim to fear government. It’s weird, on the other hand, when a philosophy claims to distrust government but doesn’t think cops and soldiers, the people who make it a government and give it power, are part of the government.