The oft repeated call by conservatives for small government is puzzling. What exactly does that mean? Do they want our government to be run by a single bureaucrat perhaps working out of a broom closet in Fairbanks, Alaska? That would be small, and as appealing as that image might appear to be, it is hard to imagine that one man, or woman, could accomplish everything our current government is called on to do.
Perhaps some background is in order. The debate over the best size of government is as old as the country itself.
At the founding, the Federalists promoted a strong (big?) federal government. They were at odds with the anti-Federalists who preferred a loose confederation of independent states.
In The Federalist Papers Alexander Hamilton said, “Not to confer in each case a degree of power commensurate to the end would be to violate the most obvious rules of prudence and propriety, and improvidently to trust the great interests of the nation to hands which are disabled from managing them with vigor and success.”
Thomas Jefferson disagreed, saying, “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, 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.”
Today, the term small government is used to invoke an economic and political system that disallows government involvement in public policy and the private sector, a concept that harkens back to the concept of Laissez-Faire economics and Adam Smith.
The term implies the size or budget of government but is really more of a political philosophy calling for limitations on government’s role in society and, therefore, limitations on government regulations.
Many today associate the idea with former president Ronald Reagan who said, “Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Prominent adherents include: the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh (now deceased), people and institutions that will happily describe themselves as conservative. But keep in mind that there is a lot of gray area as to how much so-called conservatives agree with the small government concept. Many on the Christian Right, for instance, might prefer more government intervention as a means of re-invigorating traditional morality. The neoconservative wing of the Republican party is also not particularly onboard with small government, preferring increased defense capabilities and defense spending.
A majority of respondents to a 2013 Gallup poll (54%) said the American government is trying to do too much.
On the other hand, many scholars, looking back at the tumultuous times after the American Revolution, postulate that a strong (big) central government and a National Bank, had been necessary to raise funds to pay off our debts and fend off opportunistic foreign interventions.
Likewise, the case can easily be made that a strong (big) federal government would be essential in times of war or in times of international pressure leading up to potential international conflicts.
Another argument against a weak (small) central government is that smaller, state and local governments might feel emboldened to engage in egregious and anti-democratic policies and procedures.
How then can we reconcile this obvious, divisive, debilitating, and on-going disparity in American political philosophy? Well, it won’t be easy, but it must be done.
The Center for Small Government describes small government as one that:
“…is strictly limited to defending our lives, liberty, and property; that honors individual rights; that stays out of unnecessary wars; and that is contained and transparent enough to easily find and root out government waste, dysfunction, and injustice.”
Proposed: Let’s reshape our government to make it more flexible and responsive to the needs of unforeseen future problems while always adhering to Thomas Jefferson’s ideals of limitations on government’s ability to interfere with our personal lives.