Why Do Americans Hate Active Government?

A good portion of the students in my United States History survey class (before 1865) would consider themselves conservatives. When they label themselves “conservative” it usually means that they are against “big government” and are pro-life. Some of them, if they had the guts, would probably even consider participating in a “tea party” in opposition to Barack Obama’s “big government” agenda, particularly as it relates to health care.

These same students, however, would not bat an eyelash at the idea of government intervening to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Their families have benefited from “big government” programs such as Social Security or Medicare. What would they do without the FDA or government regulation of the airline industry?

Over the last couple of days I have been lecturing on the role of government in the early republic. Thomas Jefferson and Albert Gallatin used government funds to build the American infrastucture. On the other hand, John C. Calhoun and other southerners told the government not to mess with their property (slaves). The latter example make many of my libertarian students squirm.

Remember, it was an active government that forced the integration of schools in the libertarian south in the 1950s and 1960s. Would these students have opposed FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s?

As John Judis points out in an article which appeared today on the New Republic website, the fear of government is embedded in the American psyche. Judis rightly shows how Americans have always been skeptical of active government. Tom Paine called government a “necessary evil.” Patrick Henry “smelled a rat” in Philadelphia when the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 to revamp, and eventually discard, the Articles of Confederation. Thomas Jefferson favored little republics where democracy could flourish without the interference of a strong central government.

So what explains the schizophrenia of my students and the rest of Americans–both past and present? Why are Americans so distrustful of government yet, when polled, want government to solve their problems/ Why are they, to cite a 1967 study by Lloyd Free (that is Lloyd Free the pollster, not Lloyd “World B” Free, the former Philadelphia 76er who never met a jump shot he did not like) and Hadley Cantrill, “ideological conservative” and “operationally liberal?”

Judis does not answer these questions fully, but he does suggest that the American love of the free-market has something to do with their distrust of government. Americans seem to support government programs when they do not impinge upon their economic freedom. His essay is a worth a careful read.

15 thoughts on “Why Do Americans Hate Active Government?

  1. Is healthcare a fundamental right? Yes… same as it is a fundamental right for those who can afford healthcare to not be forced to pay a tax if they do not want it. Many people are just generally healthy and don't want the extra expense. This new bill would imprison you if you refuse to pay a fine for not buying health insurance.

    If you do the math it would take a small fraction of this monstrosity of a bill to ensure everyone who is uninsured who want insurance. While this is an important issue, this country is guilty of the greatest sin of all, murdering defenseless unborn children. Do you agree with that assessment?


  2. Jeff: If your proposal would result in health care for all Americans then I would be more than willing to entertain it. If you believe all human life has dignity then it seems to me that you would need to support universal health care.


  3. I am a Pro-Life Reagan Conservative. Also, you have previously posted of your support for Universal health care. How about my solution?


  4. Jeff: Thanks for reading. I am not sure what you are responding to here, but I agree that even the staunchest libertarian could believes that government must respect natural/human rights. So I am guessing that you are pro-life libertarian. I do not see such a position to be logically inconsistent.


  5. The Civil Rights movement is a good example, though, I think of the American mindset about government – it started local, with economic boycotts and local direct action. It was only when it became evident that the scope of the problem was so great that federal action was necessary (spurred by the Birmingham campaign).

    But even a classical liberal as pure as Hayek recognized that some threats were beyond the ability of an individual, so the state has a responsibility to act – his examples were calamities and sickness.


  6. John, the difference is that abortion is taking the life of an unborn child. Remember in the Bible where it says that God knew you before you were born? He called you by name in the womb. It's a matter of human rights.

    By the way, I wanted to point out to you that on this healthcare matter. The 12 million US citizens who cannot afford healthcare can be covered by taking $35-40 billion of the unspent stimulus money. Problem solved. This is nothing but an attempt by the liberal elites to socialize 1/6th of the US Economy.


  7. Jamie: Thanks for the post. I respect all of your convictions on these matters, but I would not worry about trying to label yourself.

    My occasional gripe is with people who flaunt labels (“I am a Libertarian.” I am a “conservative.” “I am a liberal.”) without fully understanding the implications of what such labels mean. In other words, I would worry less about “what you are” and continue to wrestle with these ideas, developing convictions that conform to your deepest convictions about the nature of humanity.

    Thanks for reading.


  8. Russ: I think you are correct about this and your assessment of “conservatism” today is on the mark.

    I would even get a bit theoretical here and add Habermas's “public sphere” into the mix. Democracy, it seems, requires a vibrant public sphere of conversation and civil debate. We do not seem to have that today and both the Right and the Left are at fault.

    Such a civil sphere is what Jefferson hoped for when he promoted the idea of “little republics”–small and local communities of citizens making their own decisions about what is best for their community.

    Of course there are significant examples–race and segregation being the most prominent in American history–when localism just won't cut it. Sometimes government MUST step in when local traditions and small republics breed injustice. On matters like this I tend to side with Martin Luther King Jr. in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

    I know I got off the point here a bit, but it is my blog and I reserve the right to pontificate! Thanks the post!


  9. So would it be a fair assessment that conservatives (libertarians) need to find a happy medium? I consider myself Libertarian, and every example you mentioned I have wrestled through in these past couple years. I am a Libertarian who is against “Big government”, would happily over turn Roe V Wade, am against the New Deal in principle, am against slavery, but am also against the Federal Government intervening in the affairs of the state. So where does that put me?


  10. I think you bring up a very interesting point Dr. Fea. I wish I could sit in on some of the survey lectures especially in the midst of the health care debates.


  11. I'd say skepticism about government can be a positive when it contributes to a vibrant civil sphere of what Neuhaus and Berger termed “mediating institutions.” But it seems that conservatism today is really a toxic mix of hyper-individualism and marketism that is at least as detrimental to the civil sphere as statism would be.


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