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How Big Should Government Be? The Politicians’ Answer

14 Feb 2016

At the Democratic candidate debate last week, Bernie Sanders was asked how big government should be.  His response was illuminating, as was Hillary Clinton’s response to Sanders’ answer.  Here is part of what he said:

WOODRUFF: “And, welcome back to this PBS Newshour debate, Democratic debate, here in Milwaukee. Let’s get right to the questions.  Senator Sanders, to you first. Coming off the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, there are many voters who are taking a closer look at you, and your ideas, and they’re asking how big a role do you foresee for the federal government? It’s already spending 21% of the entire U.S. economy. How much larger would government be in the lives of Americans under a Sanders presidency?”

SANDERS: “Well, to put that in a context, Judy, I think we have to understand that in the last 30 years in this country there has been a massive transfer of wealth going from the hands of working families into the top one-tenth of 1% whose percentage of wealth has doubled. In other words, the very rich are getting richer, almost everybody is going — getting poorer.  What I believe is the United States, in fact, should join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee healthcare to all people. Our Medicare for all single-payer proposal will save the average middle class family $5,000 a year.  I do believe that in the year 2016 we have to look in terms of public education as colleges as part of public education making public colleges and universities tuition free. I believe that when real unemployment is close to 10%, and when our infrastructure, our roads, our bridges, our water systems, Flint, Michigan comes to mind. Our waste water plants, our rail, our airports, in many places are disintegrating.  Yeah, we can create 13 million jobs by rebuilding our infrastructure at a cost of a trillion dollars.”

WOODRUFF: “But, my question is how big would government be? Would there be any limit on the size of the role of government…”

SANDERS: “… Of course there will be a limit, but when today you have massive levels of income and wealth inequality, when the middle class is disappearing, you have the highest rate of child poverty of almost any major country on Earth. Yes, in my view, the government of a democratic society has a moral responsibility to play a vital role in making sure all of our people have a decent standard of living.”

After an interjection by Clinton, Sanders continued:

SANDERS: “Well, let us level with the American people. Secretary Clinton has been going around the country saying Bernie Sanders wants to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, people are going to lose their MedicAid, they’re going to lose their CHIP program.  I have fought my entire life to make sure that healthcare is a right for all people. We’re not going to dismantle everything. But, here is the truth.  Twenty-nine million people have no health insurance today in America. We pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. One out of five Americans can’t even afford the prescriptions their doctors are writing. Millions of people have high deductibles and co-payments. What I said, and let me repeat it, I don’t know what economists Secretary Clinton is talking to, but what I have said, and let me repeat it, that yes, the middle — the family right in the middle of the economy would pay $500 dollars more in taxes, and get a reduction in their healthcare costs of $5,000 dollars.  In my view healthcare is a right of all people, not a privilege, and I will fight for that.” (Transcript of Democratic Debate, February 11, 2016, Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

Sorry for the long quote, but notice what Sanders said and didn’t say.  He first obfuscated.  We need more programs, government needs to do much more.  That is a different answer: His answer was essentially about the scope of government, how “many things” it ought to do.  Sanders’ vision is virtually unlimited.  (see Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, rev. ed.  Basic Books, 2007 for an insightful discussion on the “unconstrained” vision)  Of course, an answer like that begs the question of “bigness,” but as you can see, Sanders did give a little lip service to limits on government size by saying “of course there will be a limit.”  When?  Where?  Sanders was (not unexpectedly vague).

Hillary Clinton  was not much better.  In her interruptions of Sanders and her answers to questions, Clinton said:

CLINTON: “Judy, I think that the best analysis that I’ve seen based on Senator Sanders plans is that it would probably increase the size of the federal government by about 40%, but what is most concerning to me is that in looking at the plans — let’s take healthcare for example.  Last week in a CNN town hall, the Senator told a questioner that the questioner would spend about $500 dollars in taxes to get about $5,000 dollars in healthcare. Every progressive economist who has analyzed that says that the numbers don’t add up, and that’s a promise that cannot be kept, and it’s really important now that we are getting into the rest of the country that both of us are held to account for explaining what we are proposing because, especially with healthcare, this is not about math. This is about people’s lives, and we should level with the American people about what we can do to make sure they get quality affordable healthcare.”  (responding to Sanders)

IFILL: I’d like to move along. I’d like to move along.

Secretary Clinton, you might — you also have proposed fairly expansive ideas about government. You may remember this pledge from a State of the Union Address at which I believe you were present, in which these words were said: “The era of big government is over.” You may remember that.  When asked your feelings about the federal government this week, 61 percent of New Hampshire Democrats told exit pollsters that they are angry or at least dissatisfied. Given what you and Senator Sanders are proposing, an expanding government in almost every area of our lives, is it fair for Americans who fear government to fear you?

CLINTON: No. But it is absolutely fair and necessary for Americans to vet both of our proposals, to ask the really hard questions about, what is it we think we can accomplish, why do we believe that, and what would be the results for the average American family?  In my case, whether it’s health care, or getting us to debt-free tuition, or moving us toward paid family leave, I have been very specific about where I would raise the money, how much it would cost, and how I would move this agenda forward.  I’ve tried to be as specific to answer questions so that my proposals can be vetted, because I feel like we have to level with people for the very reason, Gwen, that you are mentioning. There is a great deal of skepticism about the federal government. I’m aware of that. It comes from the right, from the left, from people on all sides of the political spectrum.  So we have a special obligation to make clear what we stand for, which is why I think we should not make promises we can’t keep, because that will further, I think, alienate Americans from understanding and believing we can together make some real changes in people’s lives.

IFILL: But I haven’t heard either of you put a price tag on your — you say…


CLINTON: I will put a price tag. My price tag is about $100 billion a year. And again, paid for. And what I have said is I will not throw us further into debt. I believe I can get the money that I need by taxing the wealthy, by closing loopholes, the things that we are way overdue for doing.  And I think once I’m in the White House we will have enough political capital to be able to do that.  But I am conscious of the fact that we have to also be very clear, especially with young people, about what kind of government is going to do what for them and what it will cost.

Clinton asserted her “big government” would cost less, but neither knows (or cares) how much more would actually be spent or for what.  In fact, Clinton agreed that she and Sanders shared the same goals.  And notice how Clinton would get her funding for all the new programs: “I believe I can get the money that I need by taxing the wealthy, by closing loopholes, the things that we are way overdue for doing.”  Simple, tax the wealthy and close loopholes.  Sanders had much the same message, but he was just more honest about the scope of it all.

Now, citizen-reader, if you want government to do all that and more, whatever it deems best for you, then by all means vote for Clinton or Sanders.  But understand that neither has any conception or concern about any constitutional limits on the size of scope of that government.  Nor do they appear to care at all about the restriction of freedom that would most certainly entail.  Government is necessary, but it is not God, and it cannot save us in any way, temporal or spiritual.  Nor are politicians gods, and they too must be reined in if they attempt to defy the limits of their power.  Only we the taxpayers can do that, but if we don’t we have only ourselves to blame.  Let me add, to be clear, that I have no more approval for so-called conservatives who do the same thing.  If the courts will not uphold the Constitution, and it will be interesting to see now what happens, then we only have us left to vote crony politicians out of office.  But I fear even “we the people” will become like the modern Greeks, all too accustomed to the state-provided feeding trough, and unwilling to give it up to stand on our own two feet (pardon the mixed metaphor).