This column was originally published August 26, 2012. It was revised on 12-30-2016 and again on 11-26-2018 to include some new graphics. It’s explains how Americans came to hate our own government, and is still as true as ever.
We hear it everywhere, all the time, like a mantra.
Candidates, TV pundits and political ads tell us we have “too much big government!” Candidates portray virtually any attempt to regulate or tax any industry as a government intrusion into our lives. Candidates are always for “less government.”
What’s up with this pervasive, anti-government theme? How and why did so many self-professed “patriotic,” flag-waving, red-blooded Americans start hating their own government?
“Government intrusion” is a powerful propaganda theme that has been around for a long time, and it’s an argument big businesses often use to subtly manipulate public opinion. As with so many other corporate-derived propaganda tools, the anti-government theme originated largely with the tobacco industry, which has relied on it for decades to get its way in public policy.
The tobacco industry started spreading the “too much big government” idea back in the 1970s in response to citizen-led efforts to pass smoking bans, which, it turned out, were extremely popular with the public. The industry found (pdf), that even smokers really liked smoking restrictions, because these laws made smokers’ lives easier by clarifying exactly where they could and could not smoke. After the industry realized it couldn’t possibly defeat smoking bans by arguing against the health facts surrounding secondhand smoke, it repeatedly applied the anti-government theme, through third parties, to campaign against these bans. The idea was to quietly shift the public’s attention away from the health hazards of secondhand smoke and onto a topic more in the industry’s favor: the too-much-big-government theme.
A Long-Time Favorite Tobacco Industry Tool
Our judgment, confirmed by research, was that the battle could not be waged successfully over the health issue. It was imperative, in our judgment, to shift the battleground from health to a field more distant and less volatile … and the best opportunity for an alternate battlefield lay in the area of government intrusion into our lives.
The industry revived the anti-government theme again in Florida in 1979 against a citizen-led effort to enact a smoke-free ordinance in Dade County, Florida (Miami). An industry-conducted poll taken in January, 1979 showed a huge margin of Dade County voters supported the smoking ban — 65 percent for to 35 percent against, with five percent undecided. Ernest Pepples, then Vice President and General Counsel for Brown & Williamson, wrote,
The … poll also shows that the people will vote against additional intrusion by government if an intelligent effort is made to inform them. A campaign is underway to do just that. The attack theme will be ‘Too Much Government’ and will stress unnecessary tax costs and costs to businesses required to comply with the proposed ordinance.
The industry fought the ordinance using its “government intrusion” theme and amazingly, in May, 1979, Dade County voters narrowly defeated the smoking ban by a measure of 49.8 percent for, 50.2 percent against. Evaluating the results of the election, the Tobacco Institute concluded that the “government intrusion” theme was far more successful with voters than the other themes they had tried, like free choice, arguing that there was a right to smoke or that smoking was a civil liberty.
The industry proceeded to push the anti-government theme repeatedly throughout the 1980s to continue its winning streak in defeating smoking ordinances around the country. Former President Ronald Reagan further bolstered corporate efforts to turn Americans against their own government in his 1982 inaugural address, when, speaking about the national economy, he famously stated “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government IS the problem.”
In 1993, cigarette makers we plunged into even more dire trouble after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared environmental tobacco smoke (ETS, or secondhand smoke) a “Group A Human Carcinogen” — the same rating the agency gives to asbestos, radon gas and vinyl chloride. Philip Morris’ PR firm, Leo Burnett, developed Project Brass, a secret, behind-the-scenes action plan to fight this development nationally. The PR firm suggested Philip Morris “Raise Flag of Government Intervention” to “… shift focus from EPA ETS report to one of the government interfering again.”
The tobacco industry used the anti-government theme over and over: to fight cigarette taxes, vending machine restrictions, labels indicating nicotine is addictive, and to fight litter laws — virtually any effort to rein in their harmful corporate behaviors. It’s been highly effective at staving off regulation and getting the public to support corporate positions just enough to hold off legislation that might really change the status quo.
The “Big Government” Bandwagon
Flash forward to 2010. Since the tobacco industry first started using the anti-government theme to such good effect, use of the theme has exploded. Now it is everywhere.
Deceased conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, initiator of the smear video against Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod, started a web site called BigGovernment.com, that he used to criticize the Obama administration. The “big government” theme is a staple of Tea Party groups and candidates. Big businesses deploy the “too much big government” argument, usually through third parties or front groups, whenever people start considering ways to rein in bad corporate behavior and protect consumers from corporate deceit and fraud. The financial sector screamed “too much government intervention” when Congress was considering the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill to crack down on Wall Street’s excesses. Climate change skeptics, many of whom are cultivated and paid by fossil fuel companies, also use “big-government intervention” rhetoric to defeat policies that address global warming. Use of the theme pervades the propagandasphere.
So Is it Real? Or Bogus?
So should we worry about too much big government? Is it ever a valid argument, or is it purely propaganda? There are ways to tell if people are applying the argument as a genuine concern, or simply using it as a propaganda tool — but it takes a little insight.
For example, in 2008, Tea Party candidates Sharron Angle of Nevada, Ken Buck of Colorado and Rand Paul of Kentucky all claimed to be against “big government.” At the same time, though, they all supported strict anti-abortion laws that would interfere with women’s personal medical choices and assure women could not obtain an abortion under any circumstances — even if they became pregnant through rape or incest, or had a life-threatening pregnancy. These candidates could not be both against big government AND in favor of handing government such tremendous control over these very personal decisions. For these candidates, the “too much big government” argument was clearly disingenuous.
Similarly, no entity screams “too much big government” more than Koch Industries, run by the libertarian oil billionaire brothers, David and Charles Koch. The Kochs claim to support a free-market system that is devoid of any government regulation, yet at the same time the Kochs profit personally in many ways from government programs. The Matador Cattle Company, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, benefits from a federal program that allows the ranch to graze it’s cattle on public lands basically for free. Two thirds of the ranch’s 300,000 acres of grazing land belong to American taxpayers, who derive no profit from the Koch’s use of it. The Kochs also own the Georgia Pacific paper company, which logs public forests. Taxpayers cover the cost of creating new logging roads for Georgia-Pacific to access forest lands — a corporate welfare arrangement that benefits the Kochs financially and costs taxpayers over $1 billion a year. The Kochs are also involved in the ethanol industry — one of the most highly subsidized industries in the U.S. Koch-owned energy companies operate tens of thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines that exist only because the government used its powers of eminent domain to forcibly seize private property on Koch’s behalf. So the Koch’s argument against “too much big government” is disingenuous too, since they make it while also freely accepting government largesse.
So, What To Make of the “Too Much Big Government” Argument?
Talking about “too much big government” in front of people is like waving a red flag in front of a stomping, snorting bull. Big businesses and politicians are fully aware of the argument’s power to appeal to people’s emotions. They count on it to make people so angry that they will be blind to the actual facts. That’s why the anti-government argument has become so prevalent during election seasons. People buy it without asking questions, and without doing the analysis required to see through it.
If you don’t have time to investigate who is making the “big government” argument and why they are making it, the safest thing to do is to dismiss it. Corporations have used the “government intervention” theme as a propaganda tool for decades now. They deploy it as a buzz word to generate strong emotions and motivate susceptible people to vote a certain way at the polls — usually in favor of corporate interests. If you don’t have time to question the argument and examine it thoroughly wherever it is made, your best bet is to disregard it completely and move on to verifiable facts.
And in the mean time, remember that government intervention is a very good thing much of the time. The government builds and maintains streets and roads, and makes sure we have fire suppression services, makes sure our water is safe to drink and works to stop the spread of infectious diseases. Government makes sure restaurants don’t give you dirty dishes and silverware when you patronize them, and that restaurants keep their food at cold enough temperatures to prevent mass food poisoning. Government funds research into dreaded diseases to help find cures. Government provides the street lights and street cleaning services and garbage and sanitary sewer service. Government does all this and much more, yet it so frequently gets a bad rap. The bottom line is we are very, very lucky to have a government that provides all of these services. It’s what makes this a first-world country, and what makes America great.