Free to be me, even with big government

So just where are the shackles of federal overreach, and why aren't I chafing? It's a core tenet of conservatism that as the tentacles of federal government lengthen, multiply, and perhaps even grow those little sucker things, our rights disappear.

Because of this, the quest for the Republican presidential nomination is becoming a debate over how much of the federal government to extinguish. The range runs from Ron Paul's butcher theory (grab a cleaver and start hacking) to the Mitt Romney barber model (just take a little off the top and not too much off the sides).

As a semi-libertarian, I've long embraced the "feds eat freedoms" concept. Lately, though, I've come to realize that it just hasn't happened.

In 1950 the federal budget was $40 billion. Had it grown only by the rate of inflation, it would now be $370 billion. Instead it is 10 times that, with new departments and programs that hadn't even been thought up six decades ago.

Under conservative theory, the only freedom left with a federal government this bloated should be the right to weep silently, and that only on Tuesdays.

What's the reality? We are far freer than we were in 1950. We can enjoy (or be repulsed by) TV shows and movies that would have seen the artists jailed back then. They're still jailed, but for punching photographers and shoplifting, not creative acts. We have books and magazines that would have been banned. We protest and burn flags, and engage in sexually wacky acts (if we're lucky).

"But Lane," you are probably shrieking at this very moment, scaring your spouse to bits, "What about the nanny state?"

The nanny state is aptly named. It's the states and municipalities that tread on us.

Can't smoke in a bar? Thank state and local laws. Want to ride a motorcycle helmetless? State law. Want to put a strip club next to a preschool, or cook and sell barbecued ribs in your apartment? Fine by Washington.

Mad that you can't smoke marijuana legally, carry a concealed handgun or drive 100 mph while your seat belt flaps in the wind? State laws. Wish you could play blackjack in a casino, procure a prostitute or buy a bottle of liquor at 2 a.m.? State laws, one and all.

So why do states' rights folks get all fervent? Because Washington is restricting their right to violate people's rights.

When states create segregated schools or deny minorities the vote, Washington steps in. When states wanted to keep people of different races from marrying, Washington stopped it.

When states promote Christianity, the feds say no. Some say the growth of the federal government has infringed on our fiscal freedom by increasing our tax burden, but it isn't so.

The top federal tax rate in 1950 was 91 percent. Today, it's 35 percent. And we're mostly richer than when the government was smaller, and we have bigger homes, more cars, enough food to make us fat, and a stunning level of information and entertainment at our fingertips.

And increased government has provided freedom. Easy travel stems from our highway system and airports, largely federally funded. As much as conservatives rail against the Environmental Protection Agency, my right to clean air and water trumps anybody's right to poison them in the name of jobs.

Polluting rivers until they catch fire isn't a right. Preventing it isn't federal overreach.

The federal government is a mess. It has departments and programs that should be taken behind the barn and shot. It arms our enemies. It pays farmers not to grow food, then gives people money to buy food that's too expensive because we didn't grow more.

But infringe upon our rights? Nah. For that, you generally have to look closer to home.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

© 2011 Newsday

Free to be me, even with big government 10/23/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 24, 2011 10:19am]

    

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