The Small Government Myth

U.S. Capitol
Republicans in the U.S. often accuse Democrats of wanting big, inefficient government. They point to social welfare programs as examples of government waste and argue that the size and role of the federal government should be significantly reduced. They often single out political correctness as a problem and attempt to use this as an example of how the political left is utilizing authoritarian means to restrict our freedom.

Then they turn around and expand the military, launch heavy-handed domestic surveillance programs with little legal oversight, militarize civilian police forces, and pass laws based on their preferred interpretation of Christianity that restrict our freedom in myriad ways. They want to limit reproductive rights, deny same-sex couples the right to marry (or even to be served as customers), stop you from buying beer on a Sunday morning, and so on. This certainly doesn't sound like efforts to achieve small government or expand freedom, does it?

This apparent inconsistency can be understood in the following way:
Both Democrats and Republicans want "big government," and both seem comfortable with a startling degree of authoritarianism when they are in power. Where they differ is what they want their big authoritarian government to do.
For many Democrats, the role of government includes things like caring for the less fortunate, minimizing the exploitation of the people by corporate America, and promoting their idea of civility and multiculturalism. Can some of this be wasteful? You bet it can. Can some of this raise important moral questions about society's obligations or what to do with those who attempt to cheat the system? Certainly. Can such an approach interfere with how the free market operates? Indeed it can.

For many Republicans, the role of government includes things like protecting the wealthy from civil unrest, minimizing restrictions on corporations, imperialism in the guise of "national defense," and promoting their idea of civility and American exceptionalism (which usually seems to be intertwined with Christianity). Can some of this be wasteful? Absolutely. Can it raise moral questions around things like privacy and personal freedom. Of course it can. And just like the Democratic agenda, none of this happens without big authoritarian government.

I have written here periodically about the need to inject a healthy dose of reason into our political system. If we are honest with ourselves, I think we can recognize that much of the "small government" talk is little more than a smokescreen. Many of the Republicans elected to office in the U.S. are not working to reduce the size of government or to expand our freedoms; they are reallocating resources from some sectors of government (e.g., social welfare programs) to other sectors (e.g., military, corrections, law enforcement). Neither party seems to have too many qualms about the use of authoritarian tactics to achieve their goals, and that should be cause for concern.

I would like a government no larger than necessary to accomplish what a government needs to accomplish. My views on what a government needs to accomplish are far closer to the Democratic version than the Republican version; however, I'm not ready to dismiss all Republican ideas simply because they are Republican ideas. What I am increasingly opposed to is the embrace of authoritarianism by both Democrats and Republicans. There will be situations where restrictions on freedom are necessary, but the burden on the government for demonstrating that they are necessary should be considerably higher than it currently seems to be.

This post is an expanded and revised version of one that originally appeared here in 2005.