For as long as I’ve been politically aware — at least since 1980 — there’s been an ongoing argument concerning “big government” vs. “small government”. Especially Republicans — I know, because I grew up wanting to be a Republican before I knew what Republicans stood for.
(In some ways, I’m still trying to find out what Republicans stand for, as there are so many flavors.)
Ask a Republican or a Libertarian, and you’re likely to get hit with a Founding Fathers quote, like this one from Jefferson: “A wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”
Now, this sounds like everything a good conservative could ask for: essential services (defense, law enforcement), de-regulated economy, and lower taxes, right?
But let’s look at that first clause again: “restrain men from injuring one another“. One of the big flaws in the de-regulation argument is that it assumes businessmen will always perceive it’s in their own best interests to avoid doing injury to competitors, employees and especially their customers. But we’ve seen through history that businessmen have injured others through hazardous work conditions, tainted meat, pollution and any number of other practices done to reduce expenses or boost profit (or out of pure ignorance of the consequences). Moreover, if they stand to gain from it, not only will businessmen not stop other businessmen from these practices, they’ll go into partnership with the practicioners.
The business sector, taken as a whole, will not take upon itself any restraint it doesn’t have to, especially if it costs. Businessmen aren’t born saints any more than the rest of us; nor are they all so wise that they will always see ethical, fair treatment as being in their best interests. So if it’s a legitimate use of government to “restrain men from injuring one another”, then you really haven’t made a case for de-regulation; the cost is not an “undue burden”.
In fact, the “undue burden” trope reminds me of the scene in Amadeus where the emperor, after hearing the premiere of La Nozze di Figaro, tells Mozart that the opera has “too many notes”; Mozart replies with no little sarcasm, “Which notes does Your Majesty think I should remove?” Consider some of the regulations surround home lending, and then tell me how anxious you are that they be removed as undue burdens to home lenders.
Actually, the easiest target is welfare. Mention welfare, and you automatically think of Bank of Amer—no, wait, you think of poor women pushing out kids to pick up extra WIC credits, or any of a dozen other memes that conservatives like to trade in the conviction that people on welfare would rather be poor without any effort than somewhat comfortable working forty hours a week. (I got news for you: some people work sixty hours a week and are still poor … because they work for businessmen whose best interests lie in paying their employees as little as they can get away with.)
Now, the theory is that independent, private charities funded at the local level will help people more efficiently than the federal government currently does. And I might buy that argument, except that nobody’s told me where the private charities are going to get the billions of dollars the government lays out. Sorry, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates don’t have that much money. Put differently, no one’s made a convincing case that, if the government pulls out of the social-support game, these more efficient private-sector initiatives will suddenly grow large enough to take the role over. But I guess that’s the welfare moms’ problem, right?
One thing we could do to shrink the size of government is to go back into isolationist mode: pull all our troops from all our overseas commitments, put our carriers, destroyers and frigates into mothballs and cut the military budget. (We may end up having to do so anyway if our economic system collapses; but most foreign-policy wonks — and I’m one — would rather we didn’t do so any sooner than we absolutely have to.)
The problem with this answer is that not only does this put a few hundred thousand servicepeople on the unemployment rolls, it also cuts funds to a bunch of government vendors, who sell us everything from F/A-18 Hornets to the wool socks soldiers wear underneath their combat boots, who will also have to lay off thousands of people … with no guarantee the economy will expand quickly enough to re-absorb them.
(And, believe it or not, all those items the military purchases — Humvees, M16A2 rifles, BDUs, MREs, fuel for the non-nuclear ships, etc. — go to the consumption figure in our GDP, which means the lost government spending would actually shrink our economy! Not to mention the lost income of the servicepeople and the various non-military vendors near the bases — the modern version of camp followers — who would be unable to spend and consume.)
Now, a lot of Congressional conservatives know all this, and have opted for the strategy of “starving the dragon”: cut taxes, forcing efficiencies and allowing a boosted economy to make up the difference. How’s that working for us? Turns out the dragon eats money from China. Certainly we need to balance the budget; I just don’t see how we can avoid raising taxes to do it, and I know de-regulation is not a well-thought-out idea.
Now, it’s no part of my argument to suggest that there aren’t boondoggles, examples of egregious waste or unnecessary programs. For one thing, we could get rid of TSA and my heart wouldn’t break; they’re little more than civil-service rent-a-cops.
No, there are three points to my argument: 1) One of the reasons our federal government is so freakin’ huge is that it’s enforcing reasonable laws and regulations we put on business because business isn’t self-regulating, except in the way that the jungle is self-regulating. 2) Anything we do to shrink the government will have to be much better considered than most people think; you can’t just yank out programs here and there and expect nothing but saved tax dollars.
And 3) Our government does inefficiently a lot of things that the private sector won’t do at all; to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, some things, if they’re worth doing at all, are worth doing badly. The fed does them because we asked it to; for some reason, we didn’t expect them to cost us anything.
If we really think about it, we can see that saying someone is for “big government” is just trading a useless, pejorative buzz phrase. It’s a red herring that distracts us from far more important policy issues and which hasn’t contributed much to defeating Democrats. Let’s stop wasting our breath on it; let’s stop pretending we can put the toothpaste back in the tube without getting everything messy.