“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” That’s what Ronald Reagan used to say, a summation of his belief that government was not just incompetent but malevolent, a ravenous beast that would steal your money and ruin your life. Or as he put it in his first inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Keep that in mind as you consider the fires now spreading over California, particularly one threatened structure that has gotten a good deal of attention:

Hurricane-force gusts and single-digit humidity levels combined Wednesday to spark a number of fires across Southern California, including one here that threatened the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for several morning hours. [...]
Ventura County firefighters had several strike teams in place at the Reagan Library, and intensive aerial attacks from helicopters and a DC-10 tanker kept the flames off the hilltop where the building sits. The library’s safety was far from certain, though, during a morning when conditions conspired against hundreds of firefighters on the ground.

Hundreds of firefighters, helicopters, a DC-10 tanker! Funny how when the Reagan Library was threatened, those charged with keeping alive the memory of Reagan’s long career of undermining, degrading and belittling government didn’t call upon the free market’s invisible hand to save them. No, they called the government.

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In fact, for years the Reagan Library has worked closely with government agencies to protect it from fires; among the extraordinary steps Ventura County, Calif., has taken to protect the library is to regularly bring in herds of goats to clear brush around the site, which they’ve been doing since 2012.

Who pays for that? Taxpayers, of course.

This is a reminder of what Republicans actually think about government, despite what they say about it.

This presidential campaign will be an opportunity to have a real debate not just about whether government should be big or small, but about what it is for and what it should do. The story of the Reagan Library is just one vivid illustration of the fact that conservatives don’t actually object to government per se; they just want to make sure that government helps some people and not others.

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So for instance, Republicans are aghast at the idea that we might consider providing all Americans with health coverage, just as every other highly developed country in the world does. In fact, the thought that those who have proved their moral deficiency by remaining stubbornly non-rich might get covered is so appalling to Republican officeholders at the state level that they turned down free federal money offered to insure their poor citizens, in the form of the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid.

That was despite the fact that multiple studies demonstrated that states would actually save money in their own budgets if they accepted the expansion. Those Republicans literally preferred to keep their own poorer citizens uninsured, even if it had ill effects on their state’s economy and budgets. That’s an ideological commitment, but not to small government.

The same thing plays out at the federal level. If a Republican proposes to cut Medicaid, food stamps, environmental protection, and scientific research while at the same time seeking to spend $750 billion on the military, is he an advocate of “limited government”? Or is it just that he wants government to spend money on some things and not others?

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Consider that the federal budget for 2017, when Donald Trump took office, was $3.98 trillion. In 2018, with Republicans fully in charge, it was $4.11 trillion. In 2019, it’s $4.53 trillion. For 2020, the administration proposed to spend $4.7 trillion.

Liberals talk a lot about how Republicans claim to care deeply about the deficit, but only when there’s a Democrat in the White House so they can use it as a justification for cutting social spending, which is true. But the simple mathematical reason that deficits always increase under Republican presidents is that they cut taxes on the wealthy, which reduces revenue, but they don’t actually reduce the size of government. The last time under a Republican president that federal spending was lower in a given year than it had been the year before was 1955. (That and other fascinating pieces of data can be found here.)

As we get into the presidential election, Republicans will attack the Democratic nominee’s proposals on things such as health care, child care, education, creating green jobs and pretty much everything else as being simply unaffordable, an extravagant pipe dream that a responsible country can’t afford. This is a powerful and profoundly cynical argument. It says that this is the best things can be, we shouldn’t bother trying to solve deep and difficult problems, and the status quo, in which certain people hold and accumulate ever more power and wealth, is just the natural order.

We can choose not to believe it, just as we choose what we should spend money on.

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