One of the most telling statements of our political era, Â–made ten years ago this week by Dick Cheney during his Vice Presidential debate with Joe Lieberman on October 5, 2000, was actually a misstatement that went largely unnoticed. And therein lies an important lesson about the place of government in our political culture.
In response to the Democratic nominee Lieberman’s jibe that Cheney had profited handsomely from the job he had recently departed as CEO of the Haliburton Corporation, the Republican nominee replied, Â“”I can tell you, Joe, the government had absolutely nothing to do with it.Â”” Amid the laughter and applause of the audience, Leiberman chuckled good-naturedly and joked about joining the private sector himself.
Following the debate, media analysts focused on what the New York Times called Cheney’s avuncular self-confidence but, like his opponent, they largely passed over the fact that his statement was a whopping lie. Despite his denial and his antigovernment rhetoric, the company Cheney ran depended on billions of dollars of government contracts and loan guarantees. It would not be an exaggeration to say that government was Haliburton’s primary source of support.
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How was it that such a statement, easily disproven, was left largely unchallenged? Part of the blame may be due to the shallowness of our televised politics, Â–the media’Â’s obsession with humor, and a superficial conception of civility.
At a deeper level, Cheney was the beneficiary of a long-term campaign against government that at the time of his comment was at least three decades in the making, and that has reached new heights in our current political moment. A narrative pushed by conservative think tanks and parroted endlessly by politicians and pundits has prevailed in which the state, especially the federal government, is depicted in almost entirely negative terms, as a drag on the economy and a threat to freedom. In this view, government is the problem, as Ronald Reagan famously put it: government spending is always wasteful; government programs are at best mediocre and at worst dangerous manifestations of the Â“nanny state.Â”
This negative view of government has also been underwritten by an inaccurate version of American history. It has become a cliche to praise what Ronald Reagan called, in his 1964 attack on Medicare, our traditional free enterprise system, and to describe the battle against government intervention in the economy as a return to venerable traditions. The prevailing narrative treats laissez-faire as the American norm and understands state intervention in the economy as a recent development.
History tells a different story. Ever since the Constitution was described in 1787 as Â“a revolution in favor of government, Americans have recognized that the state has a positive and essential role to play in promoting economic dynamism and political freedom. Early national citizens promoted internal improvements. Nineteenth-century Republicans supported public spending on railroads and the democratic experiment of Reconstruction. Progressives endorsed antitrust legislation. Free and robust markets have been the wellspring of economic growth in the United States. But, from the Erie Canal to the Internet, government policy–including land grants and consumer protection laws–has provided a framework for markets to operate, choices to proliferate, and citizens to consume.
Despite their endorsement of the state’s role as a creator of markets, provider of infrastructure, and consumer of goods and services, Americans have simultaneously held a longstanding suspicion of the state. What they most detested about the state as it existed in Europe was the way in which it granted privilege to the powerful and enabled the wealthy to further enrich themselves. They also feared the standing armies and the co-mingling of the military and the civil government that characterized Old World regimes. They feared the kind of arrangement that Cheney and his company profited from–what today we call corporate welfare and the military-industrial complex–Â–and they did so not because they uniformly condemned federal power but because they feared a state that would entrench insiders and elites.
CheneyÂ’’s comment is even more relevant today than it was when he uttered it a decade ago. Politicians and pundits continue to deny government’Â’s proper–Â–and historic–place in economic development and equally to deny or minimize the dangers of government power as manifested by secrecy, the revolving door between business and government, and unscrutinized contracts handed out to private businesses like Haliburton.
We desperately need a narrative about the role of the government in our political and economic life to compete with the one that currently dominates the conventional wisdom. Such a narrative would hold that taxes are a means of raising funds for necessary collective endeavors, that regulation can just as easily promote as stifle freedom (such as the freedom to avoid toxic drugs and unsafe food), and that government can, as the Founders recognized, promote the general welfare. It need not celebrate all forms of government power and should call attention to the dangers of an overreaching state that we have become especially aware of over the last decade. Perhaps if such a narrative had been in place in 2000, Americans would be facing our current crisis with a more balanced sense of the strengths and limitations of government, and a more accurate sense of how our predecessors understood them.
Lawrence B. Glickman is chair of the History Department at the University of South Carolina and the author, most recently, of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America.