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Distrusting the Government You Dislike

David Callahan

Edward Snowden has become an instant hero in the progressive world for leaking information about NSA surveillance. Many are comparing him to Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers. 

Imagine, though, if Snowden had leaked a bunch of documents about, say, how HHS was going to use confidential employer payroll data to monitor compliance with the Affordable Care Act. My guess is that Snowden would be seen as a hero on the right, but not the left. 

I know, I know: There's a big difference between spying and trying to provide all Americans with health insurance. At least there is to me. But I've long been struck by how trust of government is shaped by beliefs about the proper role of government.

Progressives tend to distrust anyone in a uniform. They are alarmed by a domestic police state that stops-and-frisks and overincarcerates -- and by a national security state engaged in endless war and, apparently, ever expanding surveillance. 

Conservatives seem to distrust everyone in government who doesn't wear a uniform -- inspectors from the EPA, OSHA, FDA, or DOL; investigators from the IRS, SEC, or CFTC; climate scientists at NOAA; State Department diplomats; federal judges; and even school teachers. That distrust reflects opposition to regulation, taxes, and other roles for government that restrain the market and seek to foster equity. 

I'm fairly typical in this regard: As a progressive, I want our country's security forces, domestic and global, reined in after what I see as decades of abuses. Meanwhile, I want the civilian side of government beefed up to curb unrestrained private power, redistribute wealth, and create a fairer society. 

That said, I'm self-aware enough to see the strong tension in my views. I have had many debates with the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute in which I try to alleviate his distrust of government's redistributive and regulatory roles (which he opposes) by saying: "don't worry, we live in a democracy." I argue that the EPA or OSHA or the FDA can't go too far because we have democratic accountability and the Bill of Rights. These agencies do what we the people want them to do. 

Of course, though, this is exactly what the Obama Administration is saying about NSA surveillance: That this activity is authorized by the Patriot Act and Congress has been kept fully informed. One could say the same thing about the war on drugs, stop-and-frisk, and overincarceration: That these policies reflect the will of the American public, by and large. 

What conservatives say about places like the EPA is that, yes, such agencies may be empowered and overseen by Congress, but that bureaucrats tend to have considerable power to expand their oversight functions or choose where to regulate. (Exhibit A would be the EPA's decision to regulate greenhouse gases by reinterpreting existing law. Or the IRS's focus on the nonprofit status of Tea Party groups.)

Conservatives believe that government is inherently aggrandizing -- that it's made up of social engineering busy bodies that have a vested interest in an ever expanding state. Irving Kristol coined the term "New Class" to describe the legions of social workers, educators, and civil servants who directed benefited from a larger welfare state and had become a powerful interest group pushing for more social spending and a bigger role for themselves in shaping society. 

That theory of an overreaching state, though, is pretty close to how progressives see security agencies. The military-industrial-complex has been seen as an insidious, self-perpetuating force for decades and we have added "prison-industrial-complex" to the lexicon to describe a similar apparatus focused domestically. 

Still, at the end of the day, the biggest difference between how progressives and conservatives approach trust in government is that, historically, the left has been dedicated to strengthening oversight and accountabiltiy of all government, whatever its mission. It's the left that has pushed to get money out of politics, ensure a free press, empower whistleblowers, regulate lobbyists, make legislative bodies more democratic and transparent, create freedom of information laws and other "sunshine" provisions, and limit the ability of private contractors to undertake public functions. 

Yes, progressives have pushed to empower government to do more domestically, but we've also pushed for much stronger mechanisms for accountabililty. You can't say the same about conservatives, who have sought to weaken democratic oversight even as they have pushed for a larger security state. Ironically, conservatives have even weakened oversight of the domestic functions of government that they distrust by pushing to let private contractors do so much and not stopping the flood of money into every corner of politics. 

Everyone is more likely to distrust the government they dislike. What matters ultimately is how accountable the state is overall.