The Era of Big Government Is Not Over

Guitar raids, Texas "justice," and other depressing scenes from the 2012 presidential campaign


President Barack Obama's big jobs speech last night was long on rhetoric and short on useful specifics. But then who expected anything different? Despite lofty pledges to "stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy," this is still the same president whose administration has prosecuted, harassed, or otherwise mistreated law-abiding businesses in the midst of an economic downturn.

Consider the federal government's misguided lawsuit against Boeing. In April the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charged the airline manufacturer with illegal actions "inherently destructive of the rights guaranteed employees" after Boeing decided to open a new production line for its 787 Dreamliner aircraft in South Carolina instead of building near its existing Dreamliner production facility in Washington state. According to the government's theory of the case, Boeing opened up shop in right-to-work South Carolina in order to punish its unionized Washington workers for going out on strike.

Except there's no evidence those union members have suffered any harm from Boeing's decision—in fact, the company has been adding union jobs in the Evergreen State. Meanwhile, the 1,000 recently-hired workers in South Carolina will be unemployed if the government succeeds in forcing Boeing to "operate its second line of 787 Dreamliner aircraft assembly production in the State of Washington," as the NLRB complaint demands. So much for putting people to work.

Then there's the recent federal raid on the guitar manufacturer Gibson over allegations of illegally importing wood. "Can you imagine a federal agent saying, 'You're going to jail for five years' and what you do is sort wood in the factory?" Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz told The Wall Street Journal after the government's heavy-handed August 24 raid. "I think that's way over the top." Indeed it is. According to Gibson, the wood seized last month by federal agents had all been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a respected nonprofit environmental watchdog that promotes "sustainable forest management" around the world by providing its stamp of approval to legal products that meet "the highest social and environmental criteria." The left-wing group GreenPeace recently recommended the FSC's "rigorous third party certification system" as one of its "Solutions to Deforestation." Wasn't the White House going to encourage green jobs?

Not that Obama's leading competitors have been looking much better. Among the low points in Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate was the overwhelming support among the candidates for the creation of a massive fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. "The whole fence, 2,600 miles?" asked incredulous Telemundo host Jose Diaz-Balart, who was brought out to moderate the immigration segment in a strange and none-too-subtle act of broadcast tokenism by MSNBC. "Yes," declared former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "We got to have a fence."

Not surprisingly, only libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul saw anything distasteful about a bunch of self-described limited-government conservatives endorsing such a sweeping act of federal power. "A barbed-wire fence with machine guns," Paul said, "I don't believe that's what America is all about."

It's also worth contrasting today's GOP hostility to immigration with the more libertarian attitudes of an earlier electoral season. In a memorable 1980 primary debate between Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the two candidates not only agreed that America's immigration laws should be liberalized, they actually tried to outdo in each other in supporting a more open border. As Reagan put it:

Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don't we work out some recognition of our mutual problems [with Mexico]. Make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and then while they're working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back they can go back and they can cross—and open the border both ways.

But perhaps the ugliest moment in Wednesday's debate came when Texas Gov. Rick Perry defended his state's controversial record of 234 inmate executions over the past decade. "Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might be innocent," moderator Brian Williams asked. "No, sir. I've never struggled with that at all," Perry declared.

So much for maintaining a healthy skepticism towards government power. Even George W. Bush, who is nobody's idea of a pacifist, admitted during the 2000 presidential campaign that "some of the hardest moments since I've been the governor of the state of Texas is to deal with those [death penalty] cases." Bush was right to take the matter so seriously. Of the last five death row exonerations from DNA evidence or other means around the country, three of those wrongly convicted men had been sentenced to die in Texas. It would be foolish to think they were the only innocent men who ever ended up on death row in the Lone Star State.

Yet as Reason Contributing Editor Radley Balko has observed, Perry has long refused to acknowledge even the possibility of error in his state's death penalty regime, including in the controversial execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man now widely believed to have been innocent. "Perry was confronted with the possibility that the government over which he presided may have abused it's most awesome and sacred power," Balko wrote. "And instead of skepticism of government, he showed deference…. Instead of exposing and demanding accountability for a possibly historical government error, Perry used his own power to keep himself and his constituents ignorant, lest they begin to question whether government should have such power."

Fourteen months remain in the 2012 campaign and a clear and depressing theme has already emerged: The era of big government is not over.

Damon W. Root is an associate editor at Reason magazine.