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The Conservative Fairy Tale About Government

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When people tell stories rooted in fantasy, they're called fairy tales. Such was the case last fall when Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) spoke at an anti-poverty forum at the Heritage Foundation. His remarks spun a mythical tale of our nation's past, when kind, hard-working men and women helped their neighbors and didn't need the big, bad government. According to Sen. Lee, a free-market economy and a volunteer society were all we needed to thrive. These two magical ingredients supposedly spurred "millions of ordinary Americans to make our economy very wealthy and our society truly rich."

Sen. Lee did acknowledge the historic existence of poverty in America but claimed that things got worse for poor people in 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty. That's when the government -- the villain in Sen. Lee's fairy tale -- created a number of federal and state programs, such as Head Start and Medicaid, to help those in need. Sen. Lee used the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty to declare that the millions of dollars we've spent on such programs since then have not improved the lives of poor people and that the best way to reduce poverty is for people to depend on each other rather than the government.

In saying this, Sen. Lee overlooked some pretty compelling facts. Government programs helped lower the poverty rate by 42 percent in the decade after the War on Poverty began, and the rate has continued to drop. In 1967, the poverty rate was 26 percent; in 2012, it was 16 percent, when we figure safety net programs into the mix. But such facts would have complicated Sen. Lee's fairy tale, in which a coercive government "denies the bonds of cooperation and service that represent the highest expression of our dignity."

Cue the twirling of a black mustache and an evil cackle.

Sen. Lee told his tale for a reason. He and other conservatives are realizing that they need to appear less callous to those in need and that blaming existing programs without putting forth alternative ideas is not a winning strategy. Even so, the anti-poverty plan that Sen. Lee presented at the Heritage Foundation was thin gruel -- a rehash of failed policies, a string of lofty rhetoric, a revision of history, and a denial of the facts. I mean, where else would you hear someone say that poverty isn't linked to an "absence of money?"

Conservatives know that stories about our identity as individuals, communities, and a nation are key to building support for public policies. And so a myth about how an intrusive, impersonal government crushes the spirit and prosperity of its people helps build support for policies that aim to cut taxes, slash regulations, and weaken safety net programs for those in need--all in the name of promoting opportunity and human flourishing.

The danger, of course, comes when the real world collides with the fairy tale and the ugly toad refuses to turn into a handsome prince. In order to sustain political support, rhetoric needs to match reality.

This is where progressives have an advantage. Our story turns out to be a good match with reality. The progressive story includes the real history of private-public partnerships, where government and charities work together for the common good. The progressive story showcases successful government programs going back to our early days, such as the creation of the post office, the building of the continental railroad, the development of roads and highways, and other initiatives that made our nation strong.

The progressive story punches a hole in the conservative myth that private charities alone can provide services to those who are poor. During the Great Recession of 2008, charitable giving dropped almost 14 percent in two years. But even in more robust years, private charity falls short when it comes to helping the poor. "The Voluntarism Fantasy," a recent piece in Democracy Journal by Mike Konczal, explains why this is so -- and why government programs are essential to our national well-being.

First of all, private charities are unevenly spread across the country and unable to serve many of those in need, whereas government programs can deliver essential services across the board. Beyond that, the bulk of charitable giving in this country has never gone to the poor in the first place. Most of it goes to groups considered more "deserving," such as the arts, cultural institutions, and universities. Without government assistance for food, housing, health care, and more, those living in poverty would literally be left out in the cold. Even faith-based groups doing heroic work by serving those in need are the first to admit that they cannot do it alone and that government funding is essential to meet need.

Many conservatives, including perhaps even Sen. Lee, are aware of these realities. That could be why, at certain points in his speech, he seemed to be channeling President Barack Obama. "Freedom doesn't mean 'you're on your own,'" Sen. Lee exhorted. "Freedom means 'we're all in this together.'"

He then made a quick right turn, however, linking progressive principles to the free market and voluntary networks as if they are sufficient bulwarks for a global economy in the 21st century. The truth is, they are not. In reality, government programs -- many of them public-private partnerships -- have kept millions of families out of poverty and put the American Dream within their reach. As Konczal says in his article, the government doesn't "kill private charity. It allows it to fully thrive. ... A public social insurance state gives every individual the security necessary to take risks, which enriches both our economy and our society."