Most debates about politics in America concern the question of how big the government should be.
Conservatives want small government. Liberals want big government. At least that’s the standard framing of the issues.
Of course, it’s not quite true that conservatives favor small government. When it comes to national security, most conservatives have been strong supporters of high Pentagon spending, military adventures, and expansive powers for the NSA and CIA.
And while conservatives are eager to cut spending for food stamps, education, regulatory agencies, and public health care, for example, most of them are quite happy with subsidies for corporate farming, Big Oil, and other favored industries. (For more examples of how conservatives feed at the government trough, see Dean Baker’s book “The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer.”)
And most conservatives are OK with intrusive government when it comes to cultural issues: abortion, marriage, and drug policy.
Yet the Big versus Small framing of political debates isn’t totally wrong. The libertarian wing of the conservative movement wants small government not only for social welfare, but also with regard to the military, the police, and cultural issues. For example, many supporters of Ron Paul and of the Tea Party movement are disgusted with the corruption and waste surrounding government spending on the military, corporate subsidies, the Wall Street bailouts, and the failed war on drugs.
In short, the libertarians are the ideal conservatives. They really do want small government, not just for social spending. Mainstream Republicans don’t consistency follow libertarian principles, but they often appeal to libertarian ideals in their speeches.
But the Big versus Small framing doesn’t address the real issues we face.
The problem isn’t that we have too much government or too little government.
The problem is that we have too much bad government and too little good government.
Some examples of bad government: the Vietnam War, the second war in Iraq, the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, NSA surveillance, subsidies for Big Oil, the war on drugs, and bailouts for Goldman Sachs.
Some examples of good government: public libraries, parks, childhood vaccination, contract law, civil rights legislation, labor laws, pollution laws, invention of the Internet, medical research, Head Start, The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Social Security, Medicare, and public transit systems.
Anarchists and others on the further left resemble libertarians in that they oppose Big Government and fail to acknowledge all the good that government has done. But anarchists go further and oppose corporations as well. They oppose all forms of hierarchical structure and favor bottom-up, horizontal, worker-owned, local enterprises.
I support efforts to implement such horizontal means of production. But they can’t account for the entirety of society and the economy. Government programs such as Social Security, Medicare, civil rights laws, and other top-down, hierarchical programs have been a great boon to people, building the middle class, creating many technology and medical innovations, and protecting people from harm. Hierarchical corporations such as Microsoft, Google, Intel, and auto makers are often efficient and innovative at producing products. Horizontal, bottom-up enterprises do exist (open-source software, for example), but they are the exception. Furthermore, how do anarchists propose stopping the formation of corporations? Don’t you need big government for that?
In any case, we need laws and regulations, and those require government. Society without government regulation would be like football with no rules.
Yes, government in the US is largely broken now. It serves the corporations and the rich. But the solution isn’t to blindly reduce the size of government, as libertarians and anarchists would do. If people try to subvert laws, that doesn’t mean we do away with laws. The solution is to fix the problem by reducing corruption and getting money out of politics. This will likely require a huge movement, akin to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. But it’s doable. Things used to be better in the past. And many European nations have more equitable and just governments, without going the small government route.
Libertarians would say it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves and each other as needed; don’t depend on government. But it is a fact that governments do take care of poor people, elderly people, and others unable to take care of themselves. Nobody else will take care of them.
Our country tried small government with the Articles of Confederation. That system didn’t work. With no government at all, we’d be hunter-gatherers, lacking common laws, regulations, and government services.
Government is just We the People — or should be.
For further explanation, see Anarchism, Libertarianism and the way forward, Without Government We’d Still be Hunter-Gatherers and Government is like a Computer Operating System.