08/06/2010 10:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"You Lie": Myths the Right Tells About the Left

One of the most irksome aspects of the current political divide is the conservative caricature of progressive stances on economic thinking. Here are some of the most egregious myths that have taken root about our supposed likes and dislikes:

Myth #1: We like high taxes. No we don't. Progressives merely recognize that only the government can supply the resources to provide for national defense, healthcare for the elderly, a safety net for the poor, homeland security, national education, environmental protection, food and drug safety, border protection, the criminal justice system and all of the thousands of functions the vast majority of us deem necessary. We believe in the level of taxation required to get the job done. That doesn't mean we "like" taxes. We pay them too, after all.

Countries like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, awash in oil revenue, don't have income taxes. Guess what? They have lackluster or non-existent democracies, because citizens who don't pay taxes do not demand accountability from their government. We can debate the healthiest level of taxation, but everybody paying their fair share is actually a symptom of healthy democracy.

Myth #2: We like regulation. Would that the first factory owner had said: "Why, that child is 14! Of course I won't hire her. She needs to be in school!" Would that the first mine-owner refused to foul local rivers with the coal run-off from his mine. I could cite endless examples of how the need for regulation was born, but it all comes down to the same thing: Business owners simply never choose the greater good over higher profit margins. Without regulation, we get pollution, labor exploitation, casino capitalism and oil spill disasters. (Oddly enough, Republicans are distinctly pro-regulation when it comes to abortion rights or gay marriage. Only when it comes to making money or owning guns do they suddenly find regulation tyrannical.)

The day capitalists start doing the right thing without being required to, there won't be a liberal in the world screaming for more regulation.

Myth #3: We like big government. Not really. We just know our history. America had small government back in 1929, and millions suffered terribly from the lack of a safety net during the Depression. Social Security and unemployment insurance were not invented out of an affection for the idea of a big state apparatus. They were created to improve the lives of the people.

Republicans would have far more credibility on this issue if they ever objected to growth in the biggest of big government programs: the military. Apart from Ron Paul, no one on that side of the aisle has ever suggested that defense spending is too high -- in fact, every year they insist on across-the-board increases. The idea that we can cut the size of government without shrinking defense spending is not only ludicrous, it's mathematically impossible.

Myth #4: We don't like free enterprise. Millions of Democrats start, own and operate small and large businesses. That doesn't mean we define success in life as having more things than your neighbor and living in gated communities. Money is nice, but real abundance comes from one's capacity to form and nurture bonds with other people. These bonds are strained to the breaking point by the economic consequences of a system that ensures a tiny minority will accumulate inordinate wealth at the expense of the vast majority. "Free" enterprise the way Republicans would have it work isn't very free at all.

These lies propagate the myth that conservatives and liberals have wildly differing versions of utopia. We don't. We'd all like to live in a country that has a good defense, no poverty, affordable healthcare. Everyone would love to see a prosperous middle class, the capacity to get rich and a favorable business climate. No one likes pollution or a weak infrastructure; all of us want clean air and water and a viable planet to live on.

Liberals would be delighted if all this could be achieved with a lean government, minimal regulation and low taxes. The fact that it's not going to happen is not a product of our unwillingness, it's just reality.