Salon excerpts Joe Conason's new book Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth, the most recent rider on the What Liberal Media? bandwagon.
The piece is a useful reminder that Conason's brand of smug condescension can be every bit as noxious as Coulterian venom. I was gratified, for instance, to learn about all the wonderful things I owe to Joe's political allies:
If your workplace is safe; if your children go to school rather than being forced into labor; if you are paid a living wage, including overtime; if you enjoy a 40-hour week and you are allowed to join a union to protect your rights—you can thank liberals. If your food is not poisoned and your water is drinkable—you can thank liberals.
Golly, thanks liberals! I'd been under the misguided impression that these things were primarily made possible by technological development and economic growth, but it's good to be set straight. Why no mention of Al Gore's wonderful Internet, though?
It's not entirely auto-backpatting, however:
If Americans have a common fault, however, it's our tendency to suffer from historical amnesia. Too many of us have forgotten, or never learned, what kind of country America was under the conservative rule that preceded the century of liberal reform.
In other words, liberals aren't perfect: They suffer from the defect of being too charitable to their loathsome opponents.
The rest of the excerpt is a tedious recitation of cherry picked polls showing that the majority of the American people support big government programs. My first thought when seeing such stats is always… "yeah, they like Paradise Hotel and Chicken Soup for the Soul too… who cares?" But I do sometimes wonder about the mysteries of public attitudes.
See, among the polls Conason doesn't cite are those showing that Americans prefer "smaller government with fewer services" to "larger government with more services" by a margin of 54 to 41 percent, even when the polling question doesn't mention higher taxes. (Though when you characterize the services as "needed" people say that providing those—which count as "needed" is left nebulous—is more important than shrinking government by two to one.) Conason looks instead at approval of particular programs, and that's a pretty consistent trend. Ask people whether they want smaller government, and majorities say yes. But ask about particular programs and majorities want to keep them.
There are two explanations for that, and I'm not sure which is correct here. One is that there's a Condorcet circle such that a majority really does want to do away with some significant portion of what government does, but (different) majorities also prefer the status quo to the status quo minus any one particular program. That'd be a form of systemic irrationality, arising from the well established problem of intransitivity in social preferences. The other possibility is that it's a more garden variety kind of cognitive bias—individual irrationality. People like the sound of "smaller government" in the abstract, but not when it comes time to actually cash out the attractive sounding notion in concrete terms.