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.