One of the barriers to sensible politics is the opportunism that so often infects our debates about what government is there for, where we want it to be energetic, and how we can keep it from violating the basic rights of citizens.
The muddled nature of our discussions of these matters has been brought home by two unfortunate events: The mass suffering unleashed by Harvey and President Trump’s pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio.
In the case of the vicious storm, we are reminded that some politicians think government is great when it helps their own constituents and wasteful if it helps anyone else.
We also regularly assert that government is better when it prevents problems than when it focuses primarily on cleaning up after the fact. But when environmentalists suggest that development can be carried out in more sustainable ways or that climate change is worth dealing with, they are mocked as “anti-business” or “crisis-mongers.” Then a crisis comes, and we wonder why the politicians were so short-sighted.
As for the Arpaio pardon, it is seen as technically legal because presidential authority in this area is almost unlimited. But it may be the most dangerous act of Trump’s presidency. The occupant of the White House has claimed the power to permit government agents to violate the constitutional rights of Americans and to override the courts if he doesn’t like what they’re doing. This is the largest single step toward autocracy Trump has taken.
What we hear all the time is that conservatives are for “small government” and liberals are for “big government.” But this is very misleading shorthand.