A time for smaller government?

Small government advocates are a little too happy at the belt-tightening going on (at state and local levels, anyway) to deal with the effects of the recession. Utah’s legislature is overshooting estimates in its zeal to make government smaller. Is smaller government desirable? Sure!

However, in order for conservatives to prove, in the famous words of Saint Ronald that, “Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem,” small-government types need to unplug the mouths and plug in the helping hands.

Here’s the list of things that must be taken up by the community if the state and local governments are not to do it:
– Higher education
– Public education
– Libraries
– Workforce services
– Prisons and jails
– Courts and Law enforcement (we do have a lot of guns here; hmm. . . )
– Healthcare
– Public health and safety
– Fire departments
– Zoos and parks
– Care for the elderly, disabled, poor, homeless, abused, orphans, etc.
– Infrastructure (roads, mass transit, communications, etc.)
– The National Guard
– Policing and regulation of whatever government functions are left
– Natural resource protection and/or development
– Ad infinitum

That’s quite a to-do list, and it won’t be done with tax-deductible donations or by Filling The Boot with loose change. It will take actual physical participation in all of these endeavors.

So, are you with me? Are we gonna do it?! Are we going to take back our government?!?! I have a feeling there’s a lot of hemming and hawing going on; why? Because we’re too busy with other stuff. Socrates’s model of specialization is as valid today as it was then. “We are not all alike; there are diversities of natures among us which are adapted to different occupations. . . . And will you have a work better done when the workman has many occupations, or when he has only one?” Or written by Thomas Gordon in Cato’s Letters No. 38, “What is Government, but a Trust committed by All, or the Most, to One, or a Few, who are to attend upon the Affairs of All, that every one may, with the more Security, attend upon his own?” This is the concept that the “consent of the governed” is based on. But as Mr. Gordon points out, “A great and honourable Trust; but too seldom honourably executed; those who possess it having it often more at Heart to encrease their Power, than to make it useful; and to be terrible, rather than beneficent. It is therefore a Trust, which ought to be bounded with many and strong Restraints, because Power renders Men wanton, insolent to others, and fond of themselves.“

Can we have hobbyist public works crews, police, judges, librarians, prison guards, or bus drivers, people who only do these jobs when they get around to it? No. This is why we have government. Because it provides that same specialization that too many of us spit out as “bureaucracy.”

Why do we expect the product of our imperfect Constitution to be perfect? Why would we expect the execution of that Constitution to be any less difficult than the establishment of it, where some of the greatest of the Founding generation walked out of the Convention, refusing to sign? Government has two strikes against it: 1) it is created by man, therefore deficient in its design; and 2) it is run by man, therefore deficient in its execution. A third strike in modern America is that most of us don’t know anything about it, but that doesn’t stop us from criticizing like a bunch of Pointy-Haired Bosses. I’m not saying we shouldn’t criticize the government; in fact I think it’s our duty to watch every move it makes. But in the end I think we need to acknowledge the good it does. Gandhi said “History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul.” The picture we get of government is the same: we are never told of how much good it does, but only of how it screws up. We need to accept that a human-built and human-run system is going to have failures. The other option is no government at all—I think I’m a lot closer to that than most, and it still scares me.

Two things the government has going for it are 1) its specialization, and 2) its economies of scale; nobody can negotiate, buy, spend, help, hurt, save, or kill on the scale the government can. Who else could have built an interstate freeway system, saved the world from Nazism, and put a man on the moon? I know what you’re thinking (to quote Magnum): the markets could have done it if given the chance. No, they couldn’t. Because the market would have to raise the capital to start, and would have to prove that its plan would pay off in order to do so. Who would have invested in a man on the moon? (Actually, what good has it brought us besides Tang?) The smart money was on the Nazis in WWII. Sometimes the market is actually slower than the government, because the market has to obey the laws of fear and greed, where governments can do things for simple necessity and altruism.

So, let’s see what happens as our governments shrink. Will there be a groundswell of “conservatives” striding forth to take up the banner government has let fall? I’ve got a bowl of popcorn and a comfy recliner because I think it will be that interesting.


Mike W. says:


I agree with a lot of what you have here. I agree that we as a society need to step up and fix ourselves in order to fix the government.

I think what you, and small government types, may have confused is the idea that there are multiply layers of government and that the more power a government has, the more it has to be limited in scope and size.

Local governments are key and should be and must be as big as the local communities want them to be. These governments are more accountable to the citizens (if the citizens choose to engage them) because the members of the government are well known to the constituents. Also, they are better able to accomplish the above mentioned positive things that government importantly does.

However, federal governments should be dramatically limited in scope because of their power. The checks and balances need to be hard and fast and inviolable (they have not been). The role of the federal government should be limited to its initially established intent: to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness via common defense, and regulation of common commerce. All the other roles of government are better performed by smaller, local, more easily accountable governments.

And although I am even more willing to take the “no government” idea for a theoretical spin than perhaps you are, I agree that it fulfills a fundamental, necessary role. The question is: what level of gov’t should do what? Whatever can be done at a more proximate level should be done there, leaving only to the higher levels of government the things that cannot be done by the lower levels.

Reluctant says:

I fully agree with Mike here.

I also think that you, Dave, are missing the point of the “small government” advocates. It’s not that they/we think government should be non-existent, or too small to take care of the essentials.

It’s just that we see far too much pork. There are so many pet projects that are completely unnecessary (or at least don’t justify the cost). We want the government to take care of only the essentials (as Mike indicates).

Mike W. says:

One other important point that you make is that government is much more often bumbling and inefficient than it is tyrannical (although its size and power makes the possibility of tyranny greater). I like this quote from Vindiciae contra Tyranos: “And therefore, although the prince observe not exact mediocrity in state affairs; if sometimes passion overrule his reason, if some careless omission make him neglect the public utility, or if he do not always carefully execute justice with equality, or repulse not with ready valor the availing enemy; he must not therefore be presently declared a tyrant.”

Folks from both the right and the left want to accuse the other side of despotism when most often it is the imperfection of the leader, not the maliciousness, that causes the problems.

Mike W. says:

In response to Dan:

I think Dave has a very valid point with his contention against the “small government” advocates, however. Many don’t see the need for the government to provide any of these services. My point was that it is up to the localities to decide what they will do locally and if Massachusetes wants a big government, they can have one. If Utah Co. doesn’t want the gov’t to do anything, they can deal with the problems or positives of that.

The only government that needs to essentially be small is the one with the over-arching power. The reason that most of those who Dave said “walked out” of the Constitutional convention or fought against it, did so because they feared the behemoth-ness that they saw a national government becoming.

Reluctant says:

Agreed. And the federal government has become exactly what they feared. I think that is exactly what the Libertarians are “fighting” against.

Centrist says:

Reluctant, you’re illustrating one of the problems I talk about above. We focus too much on the errors and “the pork” and convince ourselves that, ergo, our government is doing a bad job and therefore must be shrunk. Let’s give credit for the 95% of things the govt does right, and try to change the 5% of wrong. What are you doing to lessen the incidence of “pork”?

And don’t tell me, “I vote for XX.” Gandhi also said “[H]istory shows [the vote] has often turned against the voters themselves.” The vote is the weakest form of democracy. It convinces us that we have done something, when really we haven’t actually INFLUENCED anything. And after we vote, we just wait to see where the chips fall until the mid-term election when we “exercise democracy” again.

In the next little while, I’m going to create on my blog a list of things I want changed; state bills, etc. I’m going to write letters to my elected representatives or other persons of influence and ask the readers of my blog to copy the letters to their own representatives. This way, the decision-makers are getting my opinion from various sources. Gandhi (can you tell what I’m reading right now?) said “I should expect rulers to rule according to my wish, otherwise I cease to help them to rule me. . . .” I think every American should live by this creed. It’s time for the (public) servants to start listening to and obeying their masters (us). But the masters need to take an active and informed role.

Reluctant says:

You are right. I need to be doing more than I currently am.

However, I’m not sure that I agree with Gandhi (or you) in his assertion that the vote is weak. The vote can be complete power. After all, the vote is what drives the motives of most politicians.

It’s the selfishness of American society that really causes the problem. We continue to elect officials that have power and can bring our city/state/location the most money. We don’t care about the greater good… we only care about our interests.

Mike W. says:

The vote can be powerful, but only if backed by action and a real claim to rights. Most of us vote based on ideology, not on reason or ideas. Most of us vote based on media propaganda, not on reality. The vote is absolutely the most “watered-down” form of democracy. It “[has] a form of [democracy], but [lacks] the power thereof” (reference to JSH). Democracy is township government. It is engaging in our rights as citizens. Most of us don’t know or care what our rights are. Dave is right that it is the weakest form of democracy. It is the only form of democracy that most of us ever use…Shame on us! If we wonder why the country is moving in a liberal direction it is because most conservatives limit their democracy to their vote and listening to right-wing talk radio, while liberals are engaged in the community as activists and promoting their cause.

Hence Dave’s challenge to “small government types” to do more than just rant and rave about pork and waste. If we want government to be smaller, get involved and supplant it with local, non-governmental social programs that fix the problems so that the People don’t ask gov’t to step in and do it.

Centrist says:

Reluctant, how well do you track how your representatives vote on bills? Do you agree with what they’re actually doing? We listen to the campaign speeches and read their “position papers,” but do we really know how they’re performing? You may have voted Republican, but are you getting a RINO, a John Bircher, a McCarthyist, a neo-Nazi? I’ll bet 99% of us don’t know how our state reps vote on any one bill. I know I don’t.

This is why the vote without follow up pressure is so weak.

Mike W. says:

The Centrist states: “This is why we have government. Because it provides that same specialization that too many of us spit out as “bureaucracy”.”

I would argue that government actually stifles specialization and promotes sameness in thinking. Institutions are very problematic in this regard. Big corporations also suffer from the same disease of being so big that they can’t get over themselves. Government agencies are not designed to think outside the box. The creativity and problem-solving that needs to take place is rarely going to be found in government or large corporations. It’s going to be found in the Swiss patent office or Buckminster Fuller’s living room.

I really agree with Thoreau’s take on what moves the country forward:

“This government never of itself furthured an enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it (the government) got out of its (the enterprise’s) way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got it its way.”

This is why I don’t think the stimulus or trusting fixing the economy to the government will work. It will always be up to us “the People” as to whether things will change. Pres. Obama can promise all he wants, but unless we change what we do and think and feel and want, the government can not change any thing.

Mike W. says:

One more comment regarding economies of scale; this from the book Three Cups of Tea (great reading for anyone interested in humanitarian organizations built from the ground up that make a real difference in the world): “In one of the most remote villages of northern Pakistan, he built as school in twelve weeks that was vastly superior to anything the Pakistani government could have built, and at half the cost of a project that would have taken the government years to finish.”

The man who built the school had a vested interest in building it. It was for his village, for his children. Government can never duplicate that drive, that motive. The Centrist is right that government can raise money quicker than can venture capitalists, but the gov’t has little interest in being efficient or producing high quality stuff while the entrepreneur has a profound interest in doing both of those things if they are to succeed.

Just a couple of thoughts. Fundamentally I don’t think we understand the essential role that self-interest plays in human decision-making. If we continue to disregard it, we will continue to make poor economic decisions for ourselves and our country

Mike W. says:

One more comment and I’ll stop. Many of the jobs that the Centrist mentions are absolutely essential roles of government; they are the reason society and government exist: Police, judges, prison guards. Others (librarian, bus driver) are important roles to be controlled by local government.

I think that those who want smaller government don’t necessarily want no government at the local level, they just want to pare down federal government to a more manageable, accountable, and effective size.

Centrist says:

By specialization I mean of governmental roles. I’m saying I couldn’t be as good a DMV guy, or judge, or civil engineer as one who is dedicated exclusively to that as his career. I agree that government stifles innovation and the market (sometimes for the better, because the market has no conscience), but government functions best on an operational and tactical level—not on a strategic level—when there are career bureaucrats doing what they do best and what I could not accomplish if I were doing it part-time.

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