What's Behind the Hostility Toward Government?

04/27/2015 07:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

As ever more Republican politicians show interest in capturing their party's nomination for the presidency, they spar to outdo each other in depicting government as incompetent, corrupt, or even as the enemy. In doing so, they tap into what more and more Americans have been led to believe. Whereas in the 1970s, 70 percent of Americans had "trust and confidence" that the government could successfully deal with domestic problems, only 22 percent held the same view in 2011. What's behind such a radical change in views? An answer requires delving into the historical role of government.

Until recent times, government was indeed the enemy of the overwhelming majority of people. Although it provided for defense and a degree of social stability, until the nineteenth century, elites used the state to ensure that they could extract as much as possible from the working population. Workers, whether slaves, serfs, indentured servants, or wage workers, retained merely the wherewithal to survive. Yet, the goodness of government was rarely in doubt. Ideology, crafted and controlled by elites, depicted the state as sacred, its rulers chosen by gods, or themselves gods. Government was part of the sacred order of things. Even when the state came to be legitimated in secular terms (as a social contract), elites continued to use the state to ensure that they could capture most of the workers' output beyond that needed for survival.

All of this came under challenge when the maturation of capitalism in the nineteenth century created the conditions in which the working class would, through the threat of violence, successfully petition for higher wages, better working conditions, education for their children, and the franchise. The franchise gave workers the power to peacefully claim a fairer share of society's income, wealth and privilege. The role of the state was in principle reversed from a social agency that enabled elites to capture virtually all income beyond subsistence, to one that could impede them from doing so. If the state were to become truly democratically controlled, then for elites, government would indeed become "the problem" as Reagan put it in his inaugural address in 1981. Their only remaining weapon would be in maintaining control over ideology. They would have to convince enough of the electorate that their best interests would result from those policies that would in fact enable elites to retain, if not augment, their wealth, power, and privilege.

Although worker living standards improved after the franchise was democratized, so too did inequality. The big break came in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The dire conditions of that decade delegitimated the elite's ideology, permitting the widespread acceptance of doctrines and policies that produced a 40-year period of declining inequality and substantial improvement for the lives of practically all Americans. It was the "great compression" in income, wealth, and privilege.

Government measures reducing inequality and improving conditions for the broad population included workers' rights to bargain collectively, Social Security, the G.I. Bill, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, public housing, rent subsidies, Project Headstart, Job Corps, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The franchise was further extended to African Americans and desegregation began in earnest. Public goods that benefit the general population such as schools, parks, playgrounds, and public transit were vastly expanded in quantity and quality. Highly progressive income taxation also reveals the intent of redistribution toward greater equality. The highest marginal income tax rates were: 1942-43: 88 percent; 1944-45: 94 percent; 1946-50: 91 percent. Top marginal tax rates remained in the upper 80 percent from 1951 until 1964, and at 70 percent from 1965 until 1981.

However, conditions emerged in the 1970s that would enable a resurgence of ideology (laissez faire) that would enable elites to regain the ability to use government to increase their share of income, wealth, and privilege. Liberal policies were alleged to be at the root of what pundits claimed was the decline of the American century. Evidence cited included stagflation, loss of gold backing of the dollar and its devaluation, loss of the Vietnam War, and with the widespread use of recreational drugs and sexual promiscuity, moral degeneracy. Government policies such as high taxes, regulation, welfare, and union power were claimed to have sapped incentives to work hard, save and invest. Ideologues began re-crafting ever-more convincing doctrines that depicted government as the problem. The proof that these doctrines were convincing came in election results that put politicians in office, especially friendly to the elite's interests.

The ideological advantage had shifted back in favor of elites, resulting in massive tax cuts for the rich, shredded welfare for the poor, and deregulation. Income, wealth, and privilege have been massively redistributed in favor of a thin elite at the top. Beginning with the Reagan administration, the elite has regained its historic capacity to use government to enable it to capture practically everything beyond what workers need for survival. And as government programs that benefit the larger population are cut, their quality worsens, thereby giving credence to the view that government is incompetent. It doesn't work, it is the problem! And for some who may not agree, measures are being implemented that will restrict the franchise.

The 40-year period of declining inequality between the 1930s and 1970s was a historical anomaly, if not a singularity. The reason the rich can be expected to reverse any setbacks and regain disproportionate shares of wealth, income and privilege is located in their greater potential for crafting ideology that will be widely persuasive. In addition to greater material assets that enable them to essentially purchase elections, the wealthy have the best educations, the most gifted friends and acquaintances, all of which make them on average more astute and successful in identifying and attaining their interests than less-privileged citizens. And they're not evil. They sincerely believe that the doctrines and policies they support and which make them ever richer are in fact the best for everyone.