"Big government" and other lies we live by: How one Orwellian concoction consumed America

Those who preached against "big government" just wanted to control it. Now they do — and look how that worked out

Published March 28, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Mural painting illustrating "Big Brother" (Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images)
Mural painting illustrating "Big Brother" (Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images)

"If people lived without accepting lies/ they would ripen like apples, and be scented like pippins/ in their old age," wrote D.H. Lawrence in his poem "Beautiful Old Age." Unfortunately, living with accepted lies is just an everyday part of being American.

Patently misleading words and phrases that could have come straight out of Orwell's "1984" have long polluted our political language, yet continue to be taken at face value and used routinely. The most consequential has been the replacement of "war" by "defense" in the titles of the War Department and the secretary of war cabinet post in 1949, a change practically simultaneous with the publication of Orwell's novel and one that, in effect, defined all of our subsequent military actions as defensive — hence justified and not open to question. We stretched the idea of defense with regard to our own actions to cover aggression. By changing a single word, we authorized ourselves to transform a perceived or alleged threat into an actual one, justifying any response we chose to make. (Later we extended the same privilege to Israel.) 

Nineteen forty-nine was a watershed year, a kind of clincher for the Cold War, its covert actions, its hot war interludes, and its various sequels. Immediately preceded by Harry Truman's upset victory over Thomas Dewey and the rout of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, it was the year we lost our monopoly on nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union, the year we "lost" China to the Communists led by Mao Zedong, and the year we formed NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) with Canada, Iceland and nine European countries, The next year came the Korean War and Sen. Joe McCarthy. 

"1984," which introduced the term "newspeak," quickly became a propaganda weapon for our side, that of the "free world." So it was understood from the outset that we could never countenance the abuses of language and human decency the novel depicts. We were immune — at the end of ideology, if not yet of history. Appropriating Orwell, we secured ourselves from him. 

Compare the knee-jerk howls of derision over "political correctness" in language — such facers of facts we are! such disciples of St. George! away with the "thought police"! no liberal prissiness for us! (ignore that mealy-mouthed "defense" or, better, savor it as a delicious joke, a word with invisible quotation marks) — compare those howls to the virtual silence over the older, more extensive and deadly abuse of language for propaganda by government and the media — language not to be questioned, much less derided, language that is politically mandatory, the empire's clothes.

Noam Chomsky likes to refer to official euphemisms and pejoratives, rather coyly, as "technical terms." ("Fatal fictions" would be more like it.) The wonder is that we have accumulated so many of them, that a political culture full of professing Orwellians should be awash in newspeak. But such is the establishment's need to confuse the public to make it more malleable — or, on a more generous view, to pull the wool over its own eyes, the better to deceive and manipulate the public with a good conscience. So it fell to us to devise the perfect cover for the Big Brother of Orwell's novel — a government-orchestrated campaign against "big government." We paid the novel the supreme compliment.

The term "big government," a choice example of newspeak American-style, involves putting forward a false distinction to conceal the true one. The campaign against "big government" does not reflect a disagreement over the proper size and reach of government, as the issue is always framed, but a more basic one over whose interest government exists to serve, those at the top or the population as a whole. As an epithet, "big government" serves as a big stick with which politicians, in service to a corporate/military state, beat up on the derisively named "nanny state," which is alleged to squander taxpayer dollars on the undeserving, breed dependency, stifle initiative, constrain business and individual liberty, and generally emasculate. (Somehow, the doom of dependency does not hang over those who inherit wealth. Opponents of the estate tax never heard of it.) 

In other words, the campaign against "big government" is a means for government to marshal public support for shedding its responsibility to the public (enlarged so recklessly during the last century!) so as to devote itself even more to its biggest and most important clients. As if we shared a common interest, the leaders of this campaign invite us to join forces against them, the freeloaders using government to pick our pockets. 

This, then, is the real meaning of the "small" or "limited" government ideal, though such a government is small only in the sense of the constituency to be served, which in turn requires that it be highly intrusive, coercive and manipulative as well, in order to keep everyone else in line. 

For the interests of the few to prevail, they must have government behind them, and a government powerful and resourceful enough to neutralize dissent. At the same time, the few and their government and media allies agitate against "big government": 1) to hide their dependence on it; (2) to undermine government social programs, disparaged as "entitlements," seen both as rivals for government dollars and as potential source of booty; (3) to pose as champions of the people; and (4) to remind government to watch its step. Their fear of big government is real, because government can act against their interests, should it become so inclined, as well as for them. The stakes are real even if the issue, as posed, is not.

Don't leaders in business and finance, arch-foes of "big government," shuttle in and out of top government posts all the time? Don't corporate lawyers sit on the Supreme Court? Who runs the Commerce Department? Treasury? The Federal Reserve? Even, on occasion, the War Department and State? Who advises the president on economic matters? Who sets trade policy? Energy policy? Don't top brass regularly leave government service to enlist with military contractors and other private firms? But perhaps those who move in and out of top federal posts are viewed as uncontaminated by government service, unlike career civil servants, disparaged as "government bureaucrats."

Ah, the power of government, business and the military marching in lockstep! There is "small government" for you! The War Department, the costliest government department by far, the very model of a bloated, wasteful bureaucracy; the National Security Agency; the CIA; the Department of Homeland Security, the newest and third largest department — after War and Veterans Affairs — legacy of a "small government" Republican administration; the DEA, another Republican bequest to "small government" — Republicans have no objection to "alphabet soup" when the government agencies are the right sort; the FBI; the world's largest prison system; the Agribusiness Department (aka the USDA); the U.S.-led World Bank and International Monetary Fund — but then, how can government be small and still keep all those billions in line at home and abroad, those un-Americans and non-Americans and anti-Americans? "Getting government off our backs" — getting and keeping the public off government's back — translates into replacing a monkey with a gorilla.

Beginning with Jimmy Carter's presidency, disparagement of "big government" has become bipartisan. Ditto the attack on, and whittling away of, the welfare and regulatory state. 

Bipartisan allegiance to the warfare state is of even longer standing and has only grown stronger over time, becoming almost impregnable. The imperative for Republicans and Democrats to compete over fealty to U.S. power and business interests, taking turns accusing each other of being weak on "defense," of allowing the U.S. to fall behind, of being "soft" in foreign policy, dates from the end of World War II, when our military and economic dominance was, briefly, beyond challenge. 

Why do liberals respond to attacks on "big government" by defending it, playing into their opponents' hands, instead of exposing the utter fraudulence of the attacks? Liberals have been committed to the warfare state longer than conservatives, their warrior credentials are better and their commitment to the warfare state remains as solid as their commitment to the welfare state has become shaky. In addition, liberals find it hard to admit that democracy has so many enemies (witting and unwitting), some of them very powerful — an admission tantamount to questioning American exceptionalism and thus risking influence. Better to go along with the pretense that what agitates the anti-democracy crowd, Trump's constituency, is big government. They are good democracy-loving Americans all, if somewhat misguided.

Foes of "big government" want a government that rules in the name of some higher power that bends wayward humans to its will — be it God, America, the market or natural selection. (The first three are almost interchangeable, and all four complement each other.) They want a government that disdains and overrides or controls the will of the people, not one that, however imperfectly, serves it. For them, any government without the sanction of some absolute authority — blessed and interpreted by them — lacks legitimacy. Bottom line: They want a government that keeps inferiors (people lower in the social and racial scale) in their place. If it fails to do so, they are prepared to step in and play vigilante. For them, big corporations offer a better model of social organization than democracy; the military, a better one still.   

Authoritarians say, "You can't change human nature" (understood as basically bad or sinful), and therefore you can't do much to improve human societies. Even to attempt it is to defy God or the natural order. Christ was not concerned with anything as illusory or transitory as earthly justice but with saving souls for the afterlife. We are born to suffer and should be grateful to our supposed oppressors. They are really salvation facilitators and the prime movers of civilization and progress. Freedom for the few, servitude for the many — that is the right and inescapable condition (given proper policing) of humankind. The will of the people is just the opiate of the people.

God, America (aka the "country" or the "nation"), the market or natural selection vs. the Will of the People. The first four seem awesomely impersonal but are only giant scarecrows shielding a privileged, supposedly superior few. At the same time, those below this ruling elite may enjoy a measure of privilege themselves owing to nationality, gender, race, ethnicity, class and/or religion, to say nothing of the vicarious pleasure of identifying with wealth and power. Rule by a few, in their own interest, has been the norm in history. It is natural, in that it is easy. The will of the people, by contrast, stands for faith in our ability to resist manipulation and to work together, as equals, across all dividing lines, to improve society. It's a daunting task. 

If "government" is an object of distrust, contempt and resistance — for taxing away our hard-earned dollars to support people unwilling to support themselves, for example — "America" is where all the good people live, the "real Americans," people who take care of themselves and ask nothing of others, people who have nothing to hide or fear from Big Daddy. "America," which is not to be confused with the well favored but flawed country invoked in "America the Beautiful," is an object of devotion and sacrifice, a source of identity and pride. It is a bastion of the white race, perfect, incorruptible and blessed by God. Especially in time of war, and that for us now is all the time. 

The insistent, contrived opposition between venerated "America" and detested "government" is useful to maintaining the status quo because otherwise a citizen might begin to wonder, as wars and military interventions go on and on, with accompanying infringement of civil liberties, whether constantly being called to rally 'round the flag is any different in effect from the dread "collectivism" and regimentation associated with the term "state," as in "totalitarian state" or "deep state." We might realize that government, corporations — including the media corporations ever ready to beat the drums for war — financial institutions and the military make a truly fearsome foursome. Happily, the opposition between "America" and "government" helps conceal and make palatable the reality of a Big Daddy state. 

This opposition plays well because distrust of government and idolatry of country go hand in hand. "America" can do no wrong; "government" can do nothing but wrong (particularly if the Democrats are in charge). "Government" is the flak-catcher for "America." A citizen's doubts and misgivings about the U.S. can be offloaded onto "government," leaving "America" untarnished and fully charged. Hence the slogan "Love My Country/Fear My Government." Distrust "government," which taxes workers to support shirkers, illegal immigrants and high-living seniors depriving later generations of their future. Follow "country," which is not afraid to crack heads and keeps order in the world, blindly. 

In addition, the country/government opposition allows a citizen to submit to Big Daddy without forfeiting his sense of pride and independence. He can even make a show of pride and independence by weaponing up — hence the castration anxiety over gun control — though patriotism alone is often sufficiently belligerent to serve both purposes, especially in a condition of permanent war. Under Trump, the armed wing of the supposedly anti-government constituency, puffed up by the leader's flattery, showed its true colors as the bully boys of authoritarian government. But who pointed out the contradiction?  

The highest officials of government play the Anti-Big-Government Game, which should be a tip-off that it is a cover for the true intention. "Government is the problem": such sublime duplicity from a president, a former actor, FBI informant and corporate mouthpiece for General Electric bespeaks a huge sense of entitlement, a contempt for the intelligence of ordinary citizens or a brain washed clean. Politicians must have an even greater than normal capacity for self-delusion, as Ronald Reagan apparently did. Donald Trump may have been the most self-deluded yet. 

If small or limited government is the aim, why the effort, under George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump, to give ever greater power to the president, the chief executive, the commander in chief, the most powerful government official, Mr. Government himself, on the pretext of an everlasting war on terror and other evil forces? Anti-government rhetoric has helped government, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, grow and insulate itself even more from the public it is supposed to serve. No wonder government and the media do everything to perpetuate such misleading rhetoric. The problem is democracy — serving the people — when it is so much easier and more remunerative to serve the few. After all, serving the people inverts the Natural or Divine Order. 

The disparaging term "government bureaucrats," also associated with Reagan, doubtless refers to those in government who persist in taking their responsibility to the public seriously. Consider this as a case of self-serving higher-ups laughing up their sleeves at their little joke on the rest of us. Their contempt for conscientious underlings includes us as well. Should those underlings turn whistleblower, however, God help them! 

The likes of Juan Guaido and Alexei Navalny are held up as heroes while Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou and Reality Winner have faced torture, prison or exile, to say nothing of the persecution of Julian Assange by both the U.S. and British governments, with Sweden's assistance. Assange languishes in a London prison after seven years of forced confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy. He is a journalist rather than a civil servant, but we don't much like journalists, either — no more than do Honduras, Saudi Arabia and other so-called allies. And we wonder why the idea of the press as the "enemy of the people" caught on for Trump and his supporters!   

The reality of our Big Daddy state is further obscured by another false opposition, that between "government" and "free enterprise," the preferred term for capitalism. "Government" is the enemy of "free enterprise," which is the friend of "freedom" and "democracy," as the name itself suggests. Rhetorical opposition aside, however, government and "free enterprise" are old allies. One way U.S. corporations have traditionally shown their love of liberty, with the full diplomatic and military support of government, is by partnering with repressive regimes abroad, almost always the client regimes of said government. Free enterprise has always counted on government to provide optimum conditions for its expansion both at home and abroad through anti-labor laws and practices, trade agreements, judicial injunctions, police and military interventions and, when necessary, even war. 

Free enterprise is hostile to programs or laws that interfere, or might interfere, with maximizing profit, such as taxes, social programs or protections for workers (especially the right to organize), consumers and the environment. It is hostile even to free trade or competitive markets, when those ma hurt the interests of the privileged. 

People argue for free enterprise on the grounds of social utility. What other grounds could there be? They say it serves human well-being better than any other system, if government just leaves it alone. That is their mantra. At the same time, advocates rely on government for patronage and protection, and for insurance against collapse. Their goal is to capture government for themselves, which they disguise as "shrinking government" or "cutting it down to size," just as they try to concentrate whatever wealth the system generates in as few hands as possible under the guise of protecting "incentives." 

"Free trade" is the obligatory euphemism for trade agreements that promote wage competition between manufacturing workers across national borders and that override or discourage national health and safety regulations and environmental protections, keeping prices low for the finished goods and doing the same for the cost of labor. As Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research never fails to point out, these agreements, as opposed to actual free trade, often cost consumers dearly by extending the reach of patent and copyright protections that are very lucrative for the corporations holding them. Maximum vulnerability ("flexibility") for workers, maximum protection and opportunities for corporations and investors; servitude for the one, freedom for the other: That is the essence of "free trade." 

Notice also that using government to increase corporate profits and make managers and shareholders richer does not constitute government intervention in the market, according to the custodians of political speech. Only measures that would interfere with maximizing profit count as government intervention. The magic of "free trade," like that of the "free market," renders the strong hand of government invisible.  

Adding to our perpetual mental fog is the stupefying disconnect between the ideals of liberty and equality and the realities of the civilian workplace and the military. Yet, of course, we venerate free enterprise and the military right alongside democracy. An unrelated but current example is the Biden administration's sanctimonious effort to preach against anti-Asian bigotry while seeking to arouse the public against China. The preachment follows a mass shooting by a supposedly religious young man bedeviled by sexual temptation but untroubled by killing.   

The "common good," the "commonweal," the "general welfare," the "greatest good of the greatest number," the "public interest" — terms which once had positive connotations — have become terms of derision, synonymous with "socialism," which in America is used to describe any policy or proposal that puts a constraint on the accumulation and political power of capital. In fact, for ordinary people to press their claim to a better life through "entitlements," labor unions and so on is considered petty and selfish. In a warfare state, the national interest comes first — the "national" interest, that is, as opposed to the public interest. If our betters serve themselves first, that is only as it should be: They are the embodiment of national greatness.

When I was growing up, the labor movement was still strong, and the public interest (aka "John Q. Public") was routinely invoked against striking unions in outraged editorials and editorial cartoons. The media were pro-business and anti-union, then as now, but were forced to invoke a public interest they did not really believe in to try to counteract organized labor's strength in numbers. Today, when corporations, big banks and their political allies hold the country hostage, appealing to the public interest is "class warfare" or quaint leftist nostalgia. 

The U.S. Postal Service does the public's bidding and is looked down upon, but we look up to law enforcement and the military. They too are part of government, but they give orders. They hold the power of life or death. Our presidents now claim this power — on our behalf, of course — over every person on the planet. The Nazis, with their doctrine of racial and military supremacy, still have admirers and emulators in the U.S., whereas the communists, with their proletarian ideology, have almost none. To rephrase Samuel Johnson's famous question: How is it that a country that flaunts its love of liberty contains so many people who fear or despise it? How is it that Johnson's actual question — "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" — is still as pertinent as when he posed it more than 240 years ago?

By Doug Neiss

Doug Neiss is a retired business writer and editor.

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Big Government Capitalism Commentary Conservatives George Orwell Neoliberalism Propaganda