Greg Sargent argues that Obama might be able to transcend the debate over big versus small government which has dominated political debate:
Obama may be well on his way to breaking the “big government versus small government” rhetorical frame that has had a stranglehold on our political discourse for well-on decades now.
The promise of rising above old disputes has been Obama’s core political animating impulse since he burst onto the national scene. He was elected President after defeating not one, but two of the leading practitioners of 1960s-style cultural politics — the Clinton machine and the Rove-Atwater acolytes who hijacked the McCain campaign. He refused to engage on his foes’ terms the Vietnam-era-rooted arguments — about patriotism, about what it means to be a “real American” in a cultural sense — that have dominated our politics for decades.
Now Obama is attempting the same thing with the “big versus small government” dispute, and while others have tried this, Obama may be succeeding. Consider: When he said yesterday he’s not in favor of “big government” it just didn’t have the defensive feel that Bill Clinton’s “era of big government is over” speech did. Obama didn’t feel the need to package his agenda with any fancy name, like the “New Covenant.” Obama is not being apologetic or coy in steering towards an extremely ambitious role for government. Quite the opposite.
To be sure, Obama is enjoying a major assist: The economic crisis has left the public as desperate for domestic governmental assistance as at any other similar point in history. But the point is, Obama is seizing this moment to finally accomplish what has eluded other Dems: Transcending the “big versus small government” argument and, by extension, leaving it behind for good.
In so doing, Obama is allowing the public to judge his proposals for ambitious governmental action not through the old big-versus-small prism, but on their own merits. And the public likes them — big government and all.
Republicans often attack big government as if politics was divided between Republicans who oppose big government and liberals who support it. This has always been a misleading argument. Despite their rhetoric, government has grown tremendously under Republican governments. Two major expansions of government–the “war on terror” and the use of government to promote the agenda of the religious right, have occurred under George Bush.
Liberals do not support big government for the sake of big government. Instead liberals support certain policies and accept whatever size of government is necessary to support such policies. Of course there are different views among liberals with some being much more accepting of big government and the Nanny State than others.
Regardless of their views on the size of government, it is common for liberals to support limitations upon the power of government and what the government can legitimately do. There is also variation here, such as with many liberals now supporting government mandates on health care coverage with some of us, including many who backed Obama, being philosophically opposed to this.
I’ve often been a proponent of the importance of limitations on the power of government as opposed to dwelling over the size of government. For example, back in December I wrote:
In judging whether the policies of a party will make us more or less free, considerations of the size of government only play a small role. It is far more important to consider the role of government in the lives of individuals, as well as the underlying principles they hold. A political party which denies important principles such as separation of church and state, and which ignores the limitations upon the Executive Branch devised by the Founding Fathers, is an enemy of freedom regardless of their rhetoric about cutting the size of government. Of course Republicans haven’t done too well with regards to cutting government spending either.
Will Willinson also discussed the difference between small government and limited government recently:
The fact that a government is small doesn’t rule out the possibility of egregious restrictions on non-economic liberties or of incredibly burdensome economic regulation. Suppose it takes two years to fill out all the paperwork, get all the licenses, etc. to start a small business, but once you do that, your profits aren’t taxed all. Suppose many forms of exchange are simply prohibited. You might have small government, low taxes, and very little economic freedom. Of course, a small government can ban abortion, prostitution, drugs, a free press, etc. just as well as a big one. Such a government may need to spend a lot of its modest budget on police and prisons instead of on genuine public goods. The size of the budget as as percentage of output doesn’t tell you anything about the composition of spending. This is a really important point. The United States spends a lot on prisons, the military, drug law enforcement, border patrol, etc. A lot of this is the opposite of rights-respecting, and a lot of it is downright wasteful. The composition of spending is important both as a matter or morality and a matter of economic growth (which I happen to think is also a matter of morality.) Which is all to say, the fact that a government is small logically implies almost nothing about either liberty, justice or efficiency…
Limited government is really what matters, but “limited” is also a bit ambiguous. The most important sense is “rights-respecting.” Bills of rights are meant to declare that legitimate (and legal) government is limited to activities that do not violate rights. Many disputes between classical and modern liberals turn on their theories of rights. For example, if the collective action problems inherent in the provision of certain public goods justifies taxation, then a state that collects taxes for this purpose does not violate property rights. If you think there is no such justification for taxation, you’ll tend to see the taxing state as violating rights and thus overstepping its proper limits. If you think there is such a justification for taxation, and believe there is an abundance of collective action problems that may be resolved only by government action, then you may think that a quite high level of taxation and government spending is perfectly consonant with limited, property-rights respecting government…
Let me wrap it up. The “size” of government is not a good proxy for either economic or non-economic liberty or for economic performance. Advocates of “small government” need to worry more than they do about the moral and economic dimensions of the composition of spending, and they need to realize that they care more than they think they do about questions of “distributive justice,” which is pretty obviously manifest in enthusiasm for reforms, like the “flat” and “fair” tax.
I think our real concern ought to be limited government. But whether you think an ideally limited government is also small will depends on lots of things including your account of rights, your beliefs about the relative efficiency and reliability of state vs. market provision of various goods, your beliefs about the necessity of public spending to facilitate growth, and more. The claim behind my version of ”liberaltarianism” is that there is a principled position between classic night-watchman “minarchism” and full-on modern liberalism. If you’re not an anarchist or totalitarian, then you think that it’s possible for the state to do either too little or too much.
There is far more of interest in Wilkinson’s full post, as well in a follow up post here.