Paternalism, Small Government-Style

The easiest thing to do with Paul Ryan is poke holes in his math. Plenty of pundits, from Jonathan Chait to Charles Pierce to Paul Krugman, have torn the 2012 VP nominee to shreds based on numbers alone.

What struck me about last weekend’s CPAC speech by Ryan was how heavily it leaned on the sort of language that the GOP claims to hate: the language of paternalism. The “small-government” party’s rhetoric, over the past few years, has often come back to the idea of government as a hectoring parent figure. Michelle Obama’s exercise and nutrition initiatives are often described as having the trappings of a “nanny state,” for example. During a 2012 GOP primary debate, Rick Perry characterized the relationship between the states and feds as one in which a helpless child must go to his parents and ask, “Mother, may I?” More recently, when discussing the topic of contraceptives, Mike Huckabee imagined the federal government as playing a so-called “Uncle Sugar” role for women who couldn’t keep their libidos in check. Replacing the nuclear family (and church) with the government is a fear that looms large in many Republicans’ imagination.

But last weekend, Ryan stepped into the breach with some paternalistic language of his own. Talking about things like free school lunches for poor children, or unemployment benefits, Ryan claimed that what Democrats had to offer was “a full stomach and an empty soul”—lots of free goodies and handouts, but nothing that would lead Americans to cultivate an inner sense of dignity. When they are not trying to regulate the contents of a women’s uterus or police a relationship between two consenting adults, it’s rare to hear Republicans talk in this way about public policy. Instead, what mainstream Republicans have traditionally done is concede that Democrats’ attempts to expand the social safety net are well-intentioned, but claim that they’re implausible or will lead to expensive, economy-crushing complications (since Obama took office a handful of  Republicans have indulged in the idea that Democrats are creating government dependency by design, but this is still a pretty fringe view). In the documentary Mitt, the 2012 Republican candidate basically summed up his feelings on Democratic public policy: “They’re all lawyers.” A party that’s not led by any major private-sector figures will have no clue how to run a government that effectively stewards taxpayer dollars.

You can call this style of government whatever you like — mercenary, austerity, free-market capitalism — but the Republicans’ most successful sales pitch since the Reagan Era has been, “You know what’s best for you and your family. We’ll get the government out of your way.” So it’s odd to hear Paul Ryan come along and talk about how his new goal is to promote soulfulness through public policy. It’s a far cry from “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” which is a slogan that dates back to Herbert Hoover but may as well have been the GOP mantra through the turn of the century. “A full stomach and an empty soul” is traditionally what Republicans have promised voters, not an ideal that they’ve attacked (or to be more correct, “a full stomach and whatever kind of soul you want”).

To say that school lunches are harmful because they take away from Americans’ “dignity” is insulting and paternalistic, doubly so in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s. But Ryan, whose sense of sanctimony knows no bounds, seems to have decided that paternalism is all right as long as his party is the organization whose moral vision is being fulfilled. During the debate over the renewal of unemployment benefits, Rand Paul took a similar tack of telling out-of-work Americans what their priorities should be, saying in December that unemployment benefits “do a disservice” to workers by keeping them out of the workforce. At no point, while talking about service and disservice to the unemployed or hungry, did Ryan or Paul look up to ask unemployed or hungry people what they actually want.

So, I’ll bite. I want unemployment benefits because they are quite literally how I can afford to pay my rent every month. Like Social Security and Medicare, they are government expenditures funded by employers and employees who put money into the system in advance (that is, if you are at all opposed to the idea of government handouts, UI shouldn’t actually trouble you at all). They represent a miniscule portion of government spending every month, as do school lunch programs. And they buy people the “dignity,” to use Ryan’s language, of being able to live their lives (look for permanent work, focus on schoolwork, whatever else) without worrying about immediate eviction, foreclosure, or hunger. If the Republicans are prepared to argue to Americans’ faces that this is the wrong sort of “dignity,” and that only Paul Ryan knows what’s actually good for us, that is of course their prerogative. But Republicans’ small-government rhetoric has traditionally been so successful because it hits on a basic truth: Americans, for better or worse, don’t like being told what to do by the government. If Ryan is prepared to cloak his push for austerity in moralistic rhetoric, he’s no longer an accountant as much as he’s a mere sadist.

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