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Smaller Government, Anyone?

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Maybe not this week.

With the oil spilling in the Gulf, it's hard to find too many people calling for less government and more reliance on the private sector.

Drill, Baby, Drill? Maybe not so fast.

BP, to its credit, is taking responsibility for the spill, promising to do everything it can to stem the disaster. But I haven't heard too many Louisiana Republicans telling the federal government to stay out of it and leave the cleanup to BP. Not even close.

A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but when it comes to federalism and big government, the only consistency tends to be based on whose ox is being gored.

No one is for the feds staying out when their coastline, their industry and their economic and environmental well-being are at stake. On a bipartisan basis, the complaints are always that the feds are doing too little too late, not too much too soon. Is Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal now demanding more help from the feds? You bet he is.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants more cameras. Darn right. Law enforcement agencies deserve credit for moving swiftly in the face of the terrifying near-bombing in Times Square. And I don't know a soul -- even my hard-core civil liberties friends -- who will be standing up this week demanding less surveillance in public places.

With two mining disasters in recent weeks, is anyone saying that the feds should get off the backs of mine owners and leave safety concerns to the private sector so we can get more coal more quickly?

New rules go into effect this week limiting the amount of time passengers can be kept sitting on airport runways, notwithstanding the airlines' protests that it will increase costs and complicate schedules if they have to return to the gate after three hours with nothing to eat or drink (and sometimes no functioning lavatories). They can protest all they want, but I don't know too many frequent fliers -- regardless of party affiliation -- who oppose the new rules.

As a lawyer, I'm familiar with this particular phenomenon. Nobody likes lawyers (well, almost nobody) until they need one. But when you need a lawyer, everyone wants the best -- the toughest, the most aggressive. People will swear up and down about outrageous recoveries and ridiculous awards, until they're injured and you explain to them that there are caps on their awards and limits on pain and suffering. Then they are outraged at the injustice.

The reverse of the old joke -- that a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged -- is equally true: A liberal is a conservative who's been investigated or, worse, "wrongly" charged.

The disaster in the Gulf is a timely reminder that the real issue isn't "big government" versus "small government." We are all guilty of wanting to pay for small government while getting the benefits of big government when we need it. Medicare and Social Security are classic instances of big government -- and, also, the third rail in American politics. Environmentalists are easy to dismiss as anti-business, until an environmental disaster threatens to destroy the local economy or miners are trapped and killed in a collapse.

Simplistic rhetoric about "cutting the size of government," "leaving things to the private sector" and "reducing regulation" may score on political polls, but this week most people recognize that what we really need is strong, effective government to keep our people safe and our economy strong.

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See Other Political Commentaries

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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