Anti-Government Conservatism, Sort Of

We'd all agree that our politics would function better if conservatives and progressives could understand each other's point of view better, instead of simply vilifying one another. In that spirit, I'd like to offer a window into the way we on the left think on one particular issue -- and particularly, what we think about what you think -- in the hopes that it will give our conservative readers (and I know you're there, since some of you take to the comments to tell me that I'm a stupid lying despicable America-hater) some perspective.

We have a fundamentally different perspective on government, as you know. We on the left think that while government makes its share of mistakes, just like other institutions, it is also absolutely necessary for a free and just society to operate. The key question is not whether government is big or small but whether it's doing the things it ought to be doing, and doing them well. You, on the other hand, tend to believe that wherever government moves, it infringes on individual freedom. But let's consider this, from an interview with Dana Priest about her new book Top Secret America, which details the explosion of government activity since 9/11 that goes under the broad category of "homeland security":

We started to try to find all the government agencies that do secret work. And within a couple weeks, we decided there are just too many, so we’ll up the ante to top secret, which is really going into an elite level. And even then, after 2.5 years, we found nearly a million people, 860,000 people have top secret clearance in this country. That’s about 2.5 times the size of the District of Columbia itself.

And another 1,900 private companies also work at the top secret level. And there are another 1,100 federal government organizations that do work at the top secret level. And if you were to put all those on a map, you would have 17,000 locations, because a lot of the companies and a lot of the agencies have multiple buildings.

Now, my conservative friends, here's where we progressives have trouble understanding you. In the past decade, we've spent hundreds of billions of dollars on this secret national-security state. It employs almost a million people. They're reading Americans' e-mails, listening to Americans' phone calls, distributing money to local law enforcement agencies to do things like spy on the local group of harmless aging hippies who protest the Iraq War in the bizarre belief that they might actually be an al-Qaeda cell, and doing all kinds of other things we'll never know about.

Confronted with this, conservatives are unmoved. Republicans don't complain about the size of the DHS, or question whether this shadow state has gotten out of control. But if the EPA suggests that coal plants should spew fewer toxic chemicals into the air, because maybe it would be good if fewer kids got asthma, conservatives are enraged, and begin crying about the heavy hand of government, even using words like "tyranny."

So what I'm wondering is, how do conservatives reconcile this contradiction to themselves? I can tell you that our explanation on the left is that it probably has to do with the target of the government's action. The DHS is targeting "bad guys," so in the service of that end almost anything is allowed; on the other hand, the EPA is trying to help people who, you know, breathe, and in the process imposing some costs on people who own coal plants, and conservatives think that the latter are "job creators," i.e. morally superior to the rest of us, so they should therefore be allowed to do whatever they want, including poisoning the air.

Now, conservatives would say that's a distortion of their actual thinking on this issue. Maybe. But what is their actual thinking on this issue? I'm genuinely curious. Where are the rock-ribbed anti-government conservative Republicans who think it's a problem that our national-security apparatus has ballooned so spectacularly that nearly a million people have top-secret security clearances? If the answer is, "Ron Paul," then that just proves that the real answer is, there aren't any. Why?

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