Why Big Government Is Offensive

The faster the state expands, the more likely it is to violate your values.


I was hoping to make it through life without hearing television commentators repeatedly utter the word transvaginal. Yet that intimate territory is where the country headed in February, and it is where we will increasingly return as long as the government keeps assuming a greater role in our private lives.

The case, which (like so many culture war skirmishes) may already be forgotten by the time you read this, involved Republican legislation in Virginia that originally mandated an ultrasound test on every woman scheduled to have an abortion. The resulting image, according to the Virginia Senate's initial version of the bill, must if possible "contain the dimensions of the fetus, and accurately portray the presence of external members and internal organs of the fetus," in order to produce an estimate of gestational age. 

The idea was clear enough: Gals who see tangible evidence of a growing organism in their womb will probably be less likely to go through with its extermination. The problem, as Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell pointed out in his critique of the original bill after it had made national headlines, was that "mandating an invasive procedure in order to give informed consent is not a proper role for the state. No person should be directed to undergo an invasive procedure by the state, without their consent, as a precondition to another medical procedure."

Quite so, even without those "invasive" modifiers. Still, that was not exactly the language used by the bill's biggest opponents. 

"Most women will be forced to have a transvaginal procedure," wrote Slate legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick, "in which a probe is inserted into the vagina, and then moved around until an ultrasound image is produced." Transvaginal (a term not referenced in the legislation) became the horrified rallying cry for a pro-choice nation shuddering at the prospect of Republicans seizing what comedian/commentator Lizz Winstead called the "legal authority to force doctors to rape their patients."

The outrage softened the final bill's language: Now women would have the option to insist on an external ultrasound, and those who became pregnant through rape or incest could opt out altogether, though only after reporting the incident to police. But if McDonnell signs the legislation into law, it will be yet another demonstration that Republicans are reliably opposed to big-government health care only when they are not the ones implementing it. 

Whether passing Medicare Part D during the GOP salad days of 2003, intervening federally in end-of-life decisions by Terri Schiavo's family in 2005, or creating the individual health care mandate in Massachusetts in 2006, Republicans have done their best to speed up government's slow-motion takeover of the health care industry whenever doing so aligned with the party's perceived interests and values. Alas, so have Democrats. In the very same week liberals and progressives were complaining about "theocracy" in Virginia, they were busy waving away social-conservative complaints about ObamaCare's requirement that employers pay for contraceptive coverage regardless of whatever theological or philosophical objections they might have. 

Conservatives, clucked Bloomberg View columnist Jonathan Alter, were still claiming that "the president was abusing religious freedom even when that attack was no longer plausible. By decreeing that insurance companies, not Catholic institutions, will pay for contraceptives in employee health care plans (as allowed under the Affordable Care Act), the president successfully shifted the subject back to birth control, where he's on solid political footing.…The culture wars are over, and the Republicans lost."

Thinking that you can pin 100 percent of the cost of coverage on insurance companies rather than the employers who pay for health plans requires an impressive suspension of disbelief, but it is Alter's final assertion that is most relevantly wrong. Republicans may well be losing ground, but there is no chance in hell that "the culture wars are over." As long as government keeps expanding in size, scope, and cost, the culture war will only intensify. The battlegrounds will change as societal attitudes shift, but conflict will be perennial.

Consider subsidies and tax breaks (for more on the latter, see Veronique de Rugy's "Taxation, American Style," page 22). Right now 40 states offer some sort of incentive for audio-visual production, an American industry that somehow managed to rise from nothing and dominate the world without the guiding hand of government. In 2011 congressional testimony, the Tax Foundation's Joseph Henchman noted that "these programs lose governments between 72 and 92 cents for every dollar spent on them, even after accounting for increased economic activity generated by film production." 

Worse, built into each tax or subsidy goodie for Hollywood (or Detroit, or the Farm Belt) is an explicit value judgment: This industry is inherently more valuable, more worthy of support, than, say, the gaming business, or app development, or gun manufacturing (see Greg Beato's "The Gun Explosion," page 18). The federal government gives a mortgage-interest deduction to upper-class property owners; many state and local governments tilt their codes toward renters instead of rentiers. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, proposed enough rewards for favored behavior to add hundreds of pages to the tax code. When government picks winners (and losers), it not only distorts the market; it forcibly extracts money to pay for preferences that huge swaths of people don't share.

In early March gullible Minnesota lawmakers announced a plan to pay at least $737 million in public money (and probably much more than that) so the profitable Minnesota Vikings can build a new stadium. But what about taxpayers who hate football? Or competitors for the Minneapolis entertainment dollar who don't have access to subsidies from awe-struck legislators?

Libertarians have their values stomped on by governments every day. My (high) taxes in Washington, D.C., are helping to pay hundreds of millions in debt service for a baseball stadium I fervently believe should not have received a drop in public financing. My local city council members—who work part time, mind you, and often maintain second jobs—receive $125,000 from taxpayers each year, a pay rate second only to the loot commanded by the inept legislators of the last city I lived in, Los Angeles. And the criminal code is a festival of offensive-to-me-value judgments, prohibiting actions I consider perfectly moral and proper, such as traveling to Cuba, smoking marijuana, or paying money to illegal immigrants.

The kerfuffles over mandatory ultrasounds and contraceptive mandates made brutally clear an axiom that partisans have a hard time understanding: Any power that government has to do something you like will invariably be used for something you abhor. Today's decision interpreting the Commerce Clause to justify snatching home-grown medical marijuana from patients in California becomes the justification for tomorrow's federal mandate to buy health insurance. Reduce the scope of government, and we reduce the culture war, while promoting true tolerance of divergent viewpoints.

As Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) said in Michigan last February, "When you can tolerate people who are different, you know what happens? We come together.…The true belief in liberty brings all different kinds of people together." As he put it in a GOP presidential debate on January 8, "People use freedom in different ways.…It invites variations in our religious beliefs, in economic beliefs."

Want to promote tolerance? Cut government. Let different cultural claims fight it out in the appropriate venue, as far away from my tax dollars as possible.

Editor in Chief Matt Welch is co-author, with Nick Gillespie, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (PublicAffairs).