One of the things that first drew me to conservatism and by extension libertarianism was the concept of limited government. Now, oftentimes people conflate the concept of limited government with small government. I don’t think the two are the same. And one of the things that’s pushed me away from both conservatism and ideological libertarianism (as opposed to the neoclassical liberalism that I’m working with these days) is that I don’t think many conservative policies lead to limited government (and libertarian policies often just serve to bolster conservative policies despite whatever good intentions). No, conservative politicking too often leads to small government in terms of size* but not limited government in terms of scope.
See, I’m all for big government. I’m perfectly comfortable with a very distributive tax system, with a very progressive tax code, with big government expenditures on things like high-speed rail and other infrastructure projects, with a robust private labor movement, etc. What worries me is not the size of government, the rate of taxation or any of that – indeed, I’ve argued before that for a free market society to truly function, for a liberal economy to be as liberal and free as possible, the state will need to provide a generous and constant welfare net. So sign me up for big government. If…
…we can also manage to limit the scope of said government. Scope is key, whether we’re talking about our bedrooms or our digital privacy or our ability to practice religion freely, build mosques, or say stupid hateful nonsense about other people. Let’s limit the ability of our government to create monopolies, to work in cahoots with big corporations to quash competition and hurt consumers. And let’s limit the power of the state to make war, to construct secret prisons, to torture our prisoners, to spy on or assassinate our own citizens. There’s plenty of evil a government can do whether it’s big or small. Limited government – as far as I’m concerned – has nothing to do with the size of the state, the tax rate, or the sorts of welfare programs we construct.
The point is we need a government that is not too top-down, not too much invested in our day to day lives, not too powerful or centralized – but rather a government that provides the support systems that keep people on their feet, keep kids from going hungry or people who lose their jobs from also losing their homes and healthcare, that helps enforce health and safety and environmental standards without placing undue burden on the working class.
If that’s all very meta, I apologize. I just read this passage from Kevin Drum and it got me thinking:
It’s useful to know where you can find political allies. If you can find liberals who favor charter schools, less regulation of small businesses, and an end to Fannie Mae, that’s well and good. But that’s 10% or less of my worldview. I also favor high marginal tax rates on the rich, national healthcare, full funding for Social Security, more spending on early childhood education, stiff regulations on the financial industry, robust environmental rules, a strong labor movement, a cap-and-trade regime to reduce carbon emissions, a major assault on income inequality, more and better public transit, and plenty of other lefty ambitions that I won’t bother to list. If we could do all that without a bigger state, that would be fine. But we can’t. When it’s all said and done, if we lived in Drum World I figure combined government expenditures would be 40-45% of GDP and the funding source for all that would be strongly progressive. “Statist” is an obviously provocative (and usually puerile) way to frame this, but really, it’s not all that far off the mark. It wouldn’t be tyranny, any more than Sweden is a tyranny, but it would certainly be a world in which the American state was quite a bit bigger than it is now.
Honestly, I’m not that opposed to anything Drum lists here, but there’s this nagging voice in the back of my mind that keeps saying – okay, in Sweden this might not be tyranny, but this is America we’re talking about. I know the politicians here. I know we can march off to war with Iraq unprovoked, can start a whole new culture war over whether drowning people in order to gain intelligence should be termed ‘torture’. Maybe we should strive to be more like Sweden, but we have a long ways to go before I trust our government to be both big and limited at the same time. Then again, I don’t trust it to be small and limited either.
* Though often as not we see contracted private services replace government functions rather than any real dismantling of the state. See Will Wilkinson on so-called privatized prisons for more on this. I think privatized prisons are a very bad idea by the way.