10 Past Evils that Small Government Failed to Stop


[This is an excerpt from the book, “Rescuing Religion from Republican Reason”]

As I stated previously, I worked in corporate sales for 18 years. There are things I think I know, and there are things I know indisputably. What I know indisputably is that a significant percentage of people will do anything for money if they can get away with it. For many corporations, there is no concern for right versus wrong. All that stops them from doing evil is the strong arm of the law. Here are ten examples of the innocent suffering where the strong arm of the law was absent:

Triangle Fire, March 25, 1911 – The year before this fire, Triangle Shirtwaist workers went on strike demanding sanitary conditions and safety precautions, including fire escapes and open doors to the streets. They didn’t get them. The fire killed 146 women, average age 19, because the doors were regularly chained shut by management to keep employees from leaving early or taking breaks. When the fire broke out, few could escape. No owners were ever tried for a crime. According to libertarianism, these business owners were in the right, because the factory was their property, and they could do whatever they wanted with it.

Breaker Boys – from the 1870s to the 1920s – Boys 8-12 years old would work 10 hour days, six days a week inside the entrances of coal mines, separating coal from other elements. In the state of Pennsylvania alone, there were 20,000 breaker boys in 1880. Numbers peaked at 24,000 in 1907. Labor activist “Mother” Jones complained, “Fifty years ago there was a cry against slavery and men gave their lives to stop the selling of black children on the block. Today, the white child is sold for two dollars a week to the manufacturer.” In today’s money, that two dollars equals about $40, just enough to feed the child.

The libertarian Republican might argue that the children’s parents were “free” to choose to send them to the mines. The truth was that families were so impoverished they had no choice but to make their children earn their keep. As I stated in the last chapter, money buys liberty; those who lack money have no freedom but the freedom to live a slave-like existence in a laissez-faire, corporate capitalist, libertarian society.

The Freedom Rider attacks – 1961 – The Freedom Riders were a mix of white and black Americans riding buses bound for a civil rights rally in New Orleans. The riders chose to have African-Americans sit up front as a symbol of their convictions. City government officials in Birmingham, Alabama, under the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, carried out a plan to have KKK members attack the riders on numerous occasions, while the police were prohibited from intervening. Most riders were beaten to a point that they could no longer continue on the journey and had to be replaced by new Freedom Riders. Only when John F. Kennedy threatened to use federal force to protect the riders did the state of Alabama reluctantly offer some protection. The KKK was so powerful that it controlled local government, but it was nowhere near powerful enough to control the federal government. Ultimately, it was the federal government that put a stop to the atrocities against African-Americans in the South, because state and local governments, corrupted by the KKK, refused to do so in the name of states’ rights and small government.

The Leaded Gas Scare – 1920s – Standard Oil and DuPont Chemical workers suffered severe neurological effects, and even death, from lead exposure while manufacturing leaded gasoline. Had the government had workplace safety regulations enforced through inspections, these people would have been spared terrible suffering.

Hawks Nest Tunnel (Union Carbide) disaster, Gauley Bridge, WV 1927-1930 – According to a congressional report, 426 workers died and 1500 were sickened by silicosis while digging a hydro-electric tunnel and mining silica within it. The excessive silica dust inhibited lung functionality. Company management, knowing the dangers, always wore masks when on site, but no safety precautions were taken or permitted for the workers. Safety precautions would not have been all that expensive. But to the truly greedy, even small amounts of money are worth more than human life.

Today, Republicans complain about the nit-picky nature of OSHA. Having worked in a furnace manufacturing plant in my younger days, I agree that they can be a nuisance. But as we examine history, it becomes clear that we are far better off being annoyed by OSHA than we are suffering death and dismemberment at the hands of the greedy.

Shipping deaths of immigrants coming to America – early to mid-1800s – When American ships returned from delivering exports to Europe, they loaded up with European immigrants looking for a new life in America. In the late 1700s, about 10% of passengers died en route to America. So did the ship’s owners improve conditions to save lives? Not at all! In fact, they did just the opposite. They proceeded to regularly oversell passenger space, cramming up to 1000 people below deck. Conditions on board were so unsanitary that one in seven people died from cholera in the 1840s. By 1845, 20% of incoming immigrants died en route to America, more than twice the death rate from a few decades earlier. On board the April, in 1847, 500 German immigrants died. These atrocities serve as proof that lovers of money will kill for even more money.

Avondale mining disaster, Plymouth, PA 9/6/1869 – Just a few months before the disaster, politicians serving coal company interests defeated legislation to have safety inspectors and better ventilation for mines. All 179 men in the mine died, some as young as 12 years old, because a fire blocked the mine’s only entrance and suffocated the workers. In neighboring Schuylkill County, 556 mine deaths occurred from 1870-1875.

Cuyahoga River fires – 1868 to 1969 – This Cleveland area river caught fire 13 times during this period, due to an overabundance of oil and other industrial pollutants in the river. The largest and most expensive was in 1952. It did one million dollars in damage to boats and buildings along the shore. The most famous was the 1969 fire featured in Time Magazine. A 1968 Kent State study of the river affirmed that a large section of it had no animal life. Thanks to aggressive environmental legislation and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the river has been cleaned up and fires haven’t been a problem. Even northern pike and steelhead trout, which can only live in clean water, have returned to the river. According to libertarian ideology, the EPA is an unnecessary evil, because the threat of corporate lawsuits is all it takes to prevent pollution and river fires. History has proven the libertarians wrong.

Enron and rolling blackouts – early 1990s – George H.W. Bush supported 1992 deregulatory legislation that removed government price controls and allowed risky investment behavior. Within the first 6 months after the law went into effect, California experienced 38 rolling blackouts. Enron also deceived investors through acts of creative accounting, leading people to invest in a company that would soon go bankrupt.

Health insurance deception (personal story) – 1990-1991 – As I prepared to move to Nashville, Tennessee to study at Belmont University, I bought a small, student health insurance plan. The plan’s prospectus said the policy would cover “up to $5000 for surgeon’s fees,” among other things. About nine months into the policy’s coverage period, I had a hernia operation, and the surgeon charged $3000. How much did the insurance company pay? They paid $1000. Apparently, “up to $5000” meant they would pay whatever the felt like paying, but that it wouldn’t be more than $5000. It’s deceptions like these that “we the people” need to fight by means of our democratic government. This is one of the reasons that health insurance industry regulation, like that found in the Affordable Care Act of 2009, is so important.

This list of atrocities is indisputable proof of the dark, satanic power of pure, unrestrained greed – not the greed of a sole street criminal running off with someone’s belongings, but the calculated, cold-hearted greed of rich, corporate owners and executives. This greed is every bit as pervasive today as it was 100 years ago; in fact, it’s probably more so, because a far higher percentage of Americans held religious values 100 years ago. If we let greed have its way in the name of small government, our future will likely be even more oppressive than our past. We can’t let our guard down. We must be forever vigilant against greed. Our most effective defense is our democracy in which “we the people” can choose and pressure leaders to protect us through the strong arm of the law.

This is not to say that all leaders we choose to protect us are righteous heroes. If the leaders fail, we must replace them. If the leaders steal our tax money, we must watch their every move, identify the theft, and reveal the evidence to the world. If our leaders are incompetent or inefficient, then we should replace them with leaders who do a better job. Of course, to do this, we need to know who our leaders are, not just the president, not just the U.S. congressmen, but our state and local representatives, too.

Here’s what we shouldn’t do: Don’t commit intellectual suicide by saying that all politicians are corrupt and then vote for the anti-government types who say the same. They say this because the big businesses they represent are diametrically opposed to “we the people.” There’s nothing worse for predators than when their prey have power over them. That’s what democracy does. It gives the prey power over their predators. The anti-government types hate democracy, because it keeps them from funneling tax money to corporations and enabling the corporations to exploit the working class. They want you to vote away the power of democracy, so they can increase their stranglehold on America.

Small government is both incapable and unwilling to protect its people from big business. When government is small and businesses are big, businesses effectively become the government; government obeys them, not the people. If you want to replace our big government with a small one, the only way it’ll work is if we abolish big businesses. That would mean outlawing corporate liability protection, which would make corporations go away. Our landscape would then be populated with only small businesses, and we would only need a small government to regulate them. Of course, we’d no longer be able to produce cars, planes, and major appliances or distribute gasoline, phone service, and internet service. And society as we know it would collapse. But that’s the choice we have. We either return to a primitive, agrarian, small trade society run by a small government, or we embrace a democratic government in which “we the people” have enough power to protect ourselves from corporate rule.

– K. Scott Schaeffer