Why Limited Government?

Michael Gerson’s essay on “The Republican Identity Crisis” makes a fascinating point about “limited government” ideology.

One Republican Party—the Republican Party of movement conservatives on Capitol Hill and in the think-tank world—will argue that the “big government Republicanism” of the Bush era has been a reason for recent defeats. Like all fundamentalists, the antigovernment conservatives preach that greater influence requires a return to purity—the purity of Reaganism.

But the golden age of austerity under Reagan is a myth. During the Reagan years, big government got bigger, with federal spending reaching 23.5 percent of GDP (compared with just over 20 percent under the current president). …

… And the critics believe in a caricature of recent budgets. Well over half of President Bush’s spending increases have gone to a range of unexpected security necessities, including military imminent-danger pay, unmanned aerial vehicles and biological-weapons vaccines. … Why don’t anti-government conservatives mention spending increases on defense and homeland security when they make their critique? Because a minimalist state cannot fight a global war—so it is easier for critics to ignore the global war.

Most rightie rhetoric about “big government” fails to make a distinction between big government that is bad because it costs a lot of money or big government that is bad because it intrudes on personal liberty. And these are two entirely separate types of bad.

“Small government” conservatives tend to focus on economic freedom; they want freedom from taxation and government regulation, for example. But government intrudes in private lives in many ways. The Comstock laws, for example, came into being in the 1870s — exactly the same time that laissez faire reached its apex in the U.S., “during the age of industrialization as American factories operated with a free hand.” So a factory owner in 1874 enjoyed complete freedom to exploit his employees, but at the same time the government would not allow information on birth control to be mailed to him.

Gerson continues,

As antigovernment conservatives seek to purify the Republican Party, it is reasonable to ask if the purest among them are conservatives at all. The combination of disdain for government, a reflexive preference for markets and an unbalanced emphasis on individual choice is usually called libertarianism. The old conservatives had some concerns about that creed, which Russell Kirk called “an ideology of universal selfishness.” Conservatives have generally taught that the health of society is determined by the health of institutions: families, neighborhoods, schools, congregations. Unfettered individualism can loosen those bonds, while government can act to strengthen them. By this standard, good public policies—from incentives to charitable giving, to imposing minimal standards on inner-city schools—are not apostasy; they are a thoroughly orthodox, conservative commitment to the common good.

Campaigning on the size of government in 2008, while opponents talk about health care, education and poverty, will seem, and be, procedural, small-minded, cold and uninspired. The moral stakes are even higher. What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare? Nothing. What achievement would it contribute to racial healing and the unity of our country? No achievement at all. Anti-government conservatism turns out to be a strange kind of idealism—an idealism that strangles mercy.

I’d say it’s an idealism that strangles self-interest as well. “Small government” ideology is not just opposed to programs for the poor. It is opposed to programs that would help most Americans, like universal health care. It’s essentially an ideology that insists We, the People, should not use government to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility … promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Providing for the common defense is OK, however.

Andrew Sullivan took offense at Gerson’s essay

Gerson, like many big-government and left-wing types

Translation: Gerson was a speechwriter and policy adviser to President G.W. Bush.

seems to believe that all small government conservatives are libertarians and all libertarians are swivel-eyed loons. Sign me up for that then. But a belief in the ineffable goodness and efficiency of government is every bit as ideological an attitude as thinking markets can provide a better way. It’s not just a belief in free markets per se that persuades libertarians, it’s that markets can also lead to better outcomes. In other words, there’s a happy marriage between principle and pragmatism.

If a belief in republican (small r!) government requires “a belief in the ineffable goodness and efficiency of government,” sign me up for that then. But respect for the virtues of self-government as provided by the Constitution does not require blind faith in the “ineffable goodness and efficiency of government.” Quite the opposite, actually. Citizens should understand that government can become corrupt and inefficient, because it’s up to citizens to pay attention to government and make informed choices in the voting booth.

In other words, a respect for republican government is not about trusting government, but about trusting We, the People. It’s true that the people can be fooled into making bad choices, but our form of government provides means for We, the People, to correct our mistakes eventually. Most of ’em, anyway.

But putting your trust in free markets is putting trust in … what, exactly? Chance? Greed? The benevolence of the monied classes? And if those free markets stampede off in a bad direction (as they did in the 1920s, for example), what remedy do We, the People, have?

In fact, the weight of empirical evidence that history provides us reveals that when markets and business and securities are allowed freedom from government regulation, what follows is plutocracy, exploitation of labor, corruption, and economic instability. A “happy marriage between principle and pragmatism” my ass.

The Carpetbagger thinks Gerson isn’t seeing the big picture.

Hasn’t this chasm existed in GOP politics for the better part of a generation? The libertarian wing demands less government, Republican candidates say the right things, they win, they increase the size of government anyway, and libertarians complain and demand less government again. It’s a beautiful little cycle.

What makes now different? We have a few more leading GOP voices than usual suggesting that the party lost its majority status in Congress because it wasn’t libertarian enough to inspire the base, but the facts speak for themselves — the base turned out exactly as it did the last couple of cycles. Frustrated “true” conservatives didn’t stay home in protest on Election Day; they did exactly what they’ve been doing. In 2006, it wasn’t enough, but you don’t hear anyone in leadership positions suggesting that party activists and insiders settle the broader debate “once and for all.” They’ll tinker with the message, turn Pelosi into some kind of money-generating boogeyman, and try again in ‘08. …

… The Republicans’ problems are far broader than an ideological squabble — they have an unpopular and hard-to-defend policy agenda, unpopular and weak leaders, and a record of scandal, incompetence, and mismanagement.

I still say that libertarianism and “limited government” ideology is essentially anti-democratic. It deprives We, the People of the ability to use government in our own interests. Certainly the powers of government must be limited — the power to censor, the power to search and seize property, the power to intrude on citizens’ private lives generally — but placing artificial limits on the size and functions of government doesn’t restrict government as must as it restricts the will of the people. I’m not calling for “big government” for its own sake. I’m just saying that a government should be as big (or as small) as its citizens require.

What we’ve got with the Bushies is the World of All Worlds. They’ve given us a government that violates citizens’ rights but doesn’t respond to their needs. The question should not be whether government is big or small; the question should be who does government serve? The people, or something else?

Update: See also Matt Stoller, “The Bar Fight Primary.”

19 thoughts on “Why Limited Government?

  1. I still say that libertarianism and “limited government” ideology is essentially anti-democratic. It deprives We, the People of the ability to use government in our own interests.

    Absolutely, and very nicely put.

    I would also argue that ‘limited government’ can be achieved only by people who genuinely believe in the government’s potential as a positive force (aka ‘liberals’). What happened in 1994 is that we elected a Congress that, collectively, believed government had no value…except as a source of power and personal gain. Which, of course, meant there was no way in hell they would do anything to ‘limit’ it–if anything, they would be motivated to expand what they saw as their personal cash (and power) cow. In other words, it is their very contempt for government that made them govern as ‘big government’ (as measured in dollars down a rathole) conservatives.

  2. Excellent Post, Barbara. The size of governement is NOT the point. Having a governement that serves the needs of the people IS the point. Allow me to point to a good example:

    When I lived in North Carolina, it had (statewide) one of the worst educational systems in the country. However, I lived in Chapel Hill which scored above the national average. My kids went to school there and I watched what they did. 1) Identify a problem.target area 2) develop a plan strategy with MEASURABLE objectives 3) Implement the plan 4) MEASURE the result. If the results are good, expand the plan for the maximum benefit. If the results are poor, go back to step 2 and try something different. (What was almost comical was the continual efforts by the state education pinheads to get Chapel Hill to abandon their methods.)

    Government CAN work; it can be responsive, innovative and cost-effective. As some women will point out, it’s not all about size.

  3. Maybe part of the problem of a non-responsive and non-responsible government is that we refer to our hired help [elected officials] as our ‘leaders’. Instead of attending to the needs and will of WE the people who elect them, so often our governmental servants use their positioning to feather their own nests and/or simply ignore us.
    Imagine a chauffeur who gets in the driver’s seat and imperially calls himself the Decider, steering the car only toward where he wants to go. Imagine a maid who views her employment in terms of what she can steal from the employer’s household during her working hours. Imagine an accountant who spends every dime in your account and, in fact, creates liens against your future earnings…. locking you and your children and even your grandchildren into debt. Imagine a yard man who decides to cut down your trees because he has a friend who wants the wood.

    Whether government is large or small, something’s gone wrong with a system when the hired help can ignore those they are supposed to serve.

  4. Most republicans fantasize about taking the country back to the 1890s, just as Karl Rove told them it was nirvana. He and the repub. think the 1890s were the high water mark. The best of times. No regulation, taxation, time of monopolies, worker explotation and the company town. orphans on the streets begging and all sorts of Dickensonian delights.
    The actual conservative thinking of the real reagan types came out of the 1950s with Goldwater as thier standard bearer.
    In reality neither can be feasible but, they keep on trying. One of the big problems is that in order to get elected, the republicans have to woo the evangelicals and they want big money spent on thier own version of social programs. So they are in a rock and a hard place.
    What is reality is that no ideology can remain pure and be workable and pragmatic. usually it’s a combination of ideas.

  5. Limiting government is indeed anti-democratic. It is also anti-monarchic and anti-aristocratic, the other two forms of government. Limited government is, guess what, anti-government. It’s the flip side of limited anarchy.

    Of course it’s an open question where to put those limits. How governed, or ungoverned, are we to be, individually or collectively? “We The People” is a fine rolling phrase, but in practice you only meet people, never The People. Who do you mean, ‘we’?

    Government should be limited to guard itself and the people from its excesses. Of course anarchy also has its excesses. Therefore an eternally shifting compromise.

  6. I’m so sick of hearing this ‘limited government’ crap. These people are actually anarchic capitalists and if we continue to allow them to privatize and de-regulate (is there anything left to deregulate?) America as we once knew it will be gone. Already, state governments are selling off to foreign nations our roads and our businesses. That takes these elements out of the ‘common welfare’ column and puts them into the foreign nations ‘common welfare’ column in that the funds these roads generate leaves this country. This is our country but its being sold off to the highest bidder. The Founders did not intend for corporations to have the power they have today and they certainly didn’t intend for us to sell off our assets to other nations and give up our sovereignty. We need a second Boston Tea Party to take this country back.

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  9. “Limiting government is indeed anti-democratic. It is also anti-monarchic and anti-aristocratic, the other two forms of government.”

    But it’s not anti-oligarchic, which is the point, nor is it in practice actually anti-aristocratic.

  10. Interesting that the theory of capitalism is full of assumptions such as informed consumers, institutions (financail, legal) that can be trusted by all, infrastructure maintained and available to all… All of which take government (and laws and regulations) to build and maintain (while many of our laws and regulations actually undermine those efforts. On the first in the list – note Bush’s big-pharma-fuled reaction to Australia’s attempt to require honesty in drug advertising: He threatened reprisals).

    Interesting also that in theory, socialism is defined as gov’t ownership of the means of production (meaning factories), while in this Friedman era, gov’t ownership of anything (roads, waterways, parks) is derided as socialism.

    I’ve often wondered why Norquist and his ilk failed to emigrate to Somalia, since it apparently embodied their ideals.

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  12. It’s curious that generally the same people who complain about illegal immigration, crime in the streets, abortion, same-sex marriage, flag burning… are Republicans, who, without taking a breath complain about big government, the only entity around to prevent all the other things they’re complaining about.

  13. Talk of “limited government” is, pretty much, the same smokescreen as “states rights”. People are in favor of any “philosophy” that will have the outcome they seek—whether it’s oppression of people they hate, or acquiring ill-gotten wealth by oppressing workers. (This is not to suggest that all or even most capitalists are immoral or oppress workers.)

    It’s about power and wealth, and these interests are (badly) masked by political philosophies that are quickly dropped when they no longer serve their purpose. Who. in the Bush Administration. wants to limit the power of the President?!

  14. In practice, “aristocracy” = oligarchy; that is, the powerful few will always define themselves as the best.

    It’s true that any limited-government system can be corrupted by an oligarchy. But it’s also true that any _un_limited government system can be corrupted by an oligarchy. Any system can be gamed. That is why the compromise between government and anarchy constantly shifts, as old tactics wear out.

    Limits on gov’t power limits the mischief it can do, if it goes wrong, as it might from time to time. For instance, aren’t you glad that Bush doesn’t have the draft? That’s a limit on government! Or take the Magna Carta; another excellent limit.

    The point is not limits on government per se, but limits set by whom, and for what?

  15. “Limits on gov’t power limits the mischief it can do, if it goes wrong, as it might from time to time. For instance, aren’t you glad that Bush doesn’t have the draft? That’s a limit on government! Or take the Magna Carta; another excellent limit.

    The point is not limits on government per se, but limits set by whom, and for what?”

    Indeed. I should have said, as maha did, “limited goverment ideology,” which is a whole ‘nother animal altogether.

  16. It’s true that any limited-government system can be corrupted by an oligarchy. But it’s also true that any _un_limited government system can be corrupted by an oligarchy. Any system can be gamed. That is why the compromise between government and anarchy constantly shifts, as old tactics wear out.

    That’s why I think the argument about whether government should be “big” or “small” is a stupid argument. A “small” government can still be inefficient, corrupt, and oppressive of citizens’ rights. A “big” government can be those things too, of course.

    The thing is, I don’t know of anyone who argues that government *should* be big for the sake of being big. I’m as pure a liberal in the American tradition of liberalism as you are likely to find anywhere, and I don’t even think that. I don’t think government should be any bigger than it needs to be to do what it needs to do, and it’s up to the people to decide what it needs to do. If the people decide that a “small” government is adeqate to meet their needs, that’s fine with me.

    I don’t like to be taxed up the wazoo for bogus programs or pork barrel projects any more than anyone else. And whenever the private sector can do something as well as or better than government for less money, by all means, let the private sector do it. I’m just saying people should apply critical thinking skills instead of knee-jerk ideology to the problems that face us. Private is not *always* better than public, and the notion that shrinking the size of government is *always* the cure for whatever is wrong with it is nothing but magical thinking. It’s not logical or critical thinking.

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