Friday, September 13, 2019

Limits to the size-of-government argument

Conservatives, of which I am one, like to argue in favor of smaller governmentPresident Reagan laid the foundation for popularizing this argument in his first inaugural address in 1981: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”

That is actually a statement more about big government than it is smaller government. To a government bureaucracy, problems become less something to be solved (which would put bureaucrats out of a job), and more something to be managed (which would keep bureaucrats employed). It is no coincidence, then, that as government has gotten bigger, society's problems have increased with it.

It is logical to conclude that reversing this trend would improve things. If big government makes things worse, smaller government would make things better. While there is truth to this argument, it also lacks a foundation. Size is entirely relative. Taking this argument to its conclusion, one would wrongly assume conservatives believe having no government at all would solve all our problems.

No government at all is anarchy. This is where libertarians and conservatives split. Libertarians like the idea of as minimal a government as possible, and some openly voice no objection to government eliminated entirely. (I am not familiar with how they think this could happen.)

Conservatives recognize that evil must have consequences. To the extent that there is evil to be punished, there is a fundamentally necessary role for government. That is the foundation. Libertarians define the evil for government to punish as violence or threats of violence. This, however, leaves out other forms of evil that government has a valid role in punishing.

The appropriate size of government is one that can punish evil in society. The authority “does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). If there is a lot of evil in society, then government should be big enough to punish that evil. If there is not a lot of evil in society, government does not need to be that big. The controlling factor for the size of the government should be the need to punish evil, not doing good. When government goes beyond this role of punishing evil, conservatives and libertarians resume agreement about limiting the size of government.

When considering and debating the appropriate size of government, we must include the fundamental purposes of government in the conversation.

(It's worth noting that power can corrupt, even when government is limited to its role of punishing evil. This is why we have separation of powers.)

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