We hear it everywhere this election season. Candidates, ads and TV pundits say we have "too much big government!" Virtually any attempt to regulate or tax any industry is a government intrusion into our lives. Candidates say they want less government. What's up with this ubiquitous, anti-government theme?
The "Government intrusion" argument is a powerful propaganda theme that has been around for a long time, and one that big businesses often use to 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 screaming "too much big government" in the 1970s in response to efforts to pass smoking bans, which they found were extremely popular with the public. The industry found (pdf), that even smokers liked smoking restrictions, because these laws make smokers' lives easier by clarifying where they can and cannot smoke. After the industry realized it could not possibly defeat smoking bans by arguing the health facts surrounding secondhand smoke, they repeatedly applied the anti-government theme -- through third parties -- to campaign against these bans. The idea was to shift the public's attention away from the health hazards of secondhand smoke and onto a topic more in the industry's favor. Enter, the anti-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 dusted off the theme again in Florida in 1979 to use 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 Dade County voters supported the smoking ban by a huge margin -- 65 percent to 35 percent, with five percent undecided. Ernest Pepples, 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 the "government intervention" theme, and amazingly, in May, 1979, Dade County voters narrowly defeated the smoking law 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 proved far more powerful with voters than other themes they had tried, like free choice/right to smoke or civil liberties.
The industry proceeded to use the anti-government theme repeatedly throughout the 1980s, to continue to defeat smoking ordinances around the country.
In 1993, cigarette makers faced even worse trouble after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), or secondhand smoke, a Group A Human Carcinogen -- the same as 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 pulls out the anti-government theme over and over, to fight cigarette taxes, vending machine restrictions, labels indicating addiction, 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 their positions just enough to hold off onerous legislation that might really change the status quo.
The "Big Government" Bandwagon
Flash forward to 2010. Use of the anti-government theme as propaganda has exploded since the tobacco industry first tapped into its power and started using it to such good effect. Now it is everywhere.
Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, initiator of the video smear against Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod, has a Web site, BigGovernment.com, that he uses to criticize the Obama administration. Tea Party candidates use the theme constantly. Big businesses deploy the "too much big government" argument -- usually through third parties or front groups -- whenever people start considering ways to rein in their bad corporate behavior and protect consumers. 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 is it Bogus?
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 if they are simply using it as a propaganda tool -- but it takes a little insight.
For example, Tea Party candidates Sharron Angle of Nevada, Ken Buck of Colorado and Rand Paul of Kentucky have all claimed to be against "big government," but at the same time they all support strict anti-abortion laws that would interfere with women's personal, medical choices and assure women cannot have abortions under any circumstances -- even if they became pregnant through rape or incest, or if they have a pregnancy that threatens their life. These candidates can't be both against big government AND argue that government should have such great command over such personal decisions. For these candidates, the "too much big government" argument is 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 free of any government regulation. Yet the Kochs profit personally in many ways from government programs. The Matador Cattle Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries, benefits from a federal program that allows the ranch to graze 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 in 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 that 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. The Kochs' 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 accepting government largesse.
So, What To Make of the "Too Much Big Government" Argument?
Waving the argument "too much big government" in front of people is like waving a red flag in front of a snorting, stomping bull. Big businesses and politicians are aware of the argument's power. They count on it to make people so angry that they will be blind to the facts. That's why the anti-government argument has been so prevalent this election season. People buy it without asking questions.
If you don't have time to thoroughly investigate who is making the "big government" argument and why, the safest thing to do is to dismiss it out of hand. Corporations have used the "government intervention" theme as a propaganda tool for decades now. They deploy as a buzz word, through third parties, to generate strong emotions and motivate susceptible people to vote a certain way at the polls. If you don't have time to question the argument and examine it thoroughly wherever it is made, disregard it completely and move on to more verifiable facts.
In writing this article, the author relied in part upon a September 1, 2010 New York Observer article titled "7 Ways the Koch Bros. Benefit from Corporate Welfare," by Yasha Levine.