The Big Government Debate Versus Limited Government

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.

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7 Comments

  1. 1
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Brilliantly said. I’ve always thought debates about government policy should be just that; debates about government policy. A goal is set, policies are debated with the common intention of meeting the goal set, and policies are judged by whether or not they achieve the desired goal.

    As a nation, right now, we have a problem coming together even to agree on  common goals, let alone coming up with competing strategies to meet those goals. The debate over goals dominates the political scene to such a degree that policy takes a backseat.

  2. 2
    Acai says:

    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.

  3. 3
    Eclectic Radical says:

    In an article on my own blog, I discussed differing concepts of freedom, using two words from Russian which lack precisely corresponding English equivalents. One, volia, is an absolute freedom from external authority: literally the right to do whatever one pleases with no restraint but one’s capacity to do it. This is roughly the definition that classical liberals and modern conservatives have placed on freedom. The problem with volia is that anyone with the capacity to do so can use their freedom to infringe the rights of those weaker or poor than they without consequence, as there is no external empowered to stop them. Witness the economic meltdown as economic deregulation has given corporations and banks the equivalent of volia.

    The other word, svoboda, means shared civil liberties. Svoboda is not something one person has, it is something society shares. It means enjoying one’s own freedoms while not restricting or violating the freedoms of one’s fellow citizens. It entails the rule of law, allowing society to police itself to prevent its members from violating each other’s liberites. A level of responsibility is shared by all to maintain freedom for all. This is the practical shared defintion of Western democracy, and when modern liberals talk about freedom this is generally what they mean. Svoboda requires some kind of authority, and in modern Western democratic societies that authority is the people, through their elected governments.

    Volia is ultimately an unsustainable basis for a society. The vaccuum of social responsibility or accountability creates a situation analogous to the Wild West. Many conservatives and ‘hard’ libertarians consider this an ideal worth achieving. The problem is that such situations are temporary. Ultimately, someone with the power to do so establishes their own personal authority without limitation. This is how feudal Europe became a collection of nation states ruled by absolute monarchs, it is how failed states become fascist police states or become conquered by their neighbors.

  4. 4
    Barry says:

    “Big government” means a mixed economy, which itself means … what? http://ABCDunlimited.com/ideas/liberalism.html

  5. 5
    Eclectic Radical says:

    A ‘mixed economy’ is typically used to mean modern Western capitalism in the Keynesian sense. It means the raising of capital and the profit motive still drive the economy, but the people (through the government) have a right to put a stop to gross abuses of the system. The label was devised by economists and I am not entirely certain of its validity in the real world. A truly capitalist economy requires freedom to compete, entrepreneurial opportunity, and wide availability of capital. As modern financial and corporate institutions have grown and been refined they have served to limit competition, restrict entrepreneurial opportunity, and to tightly focus the available capital down strict channels. Therefore ‘pure capitalism’ as advocated by monetarists is hostile to genuine capitalism, turns into corporate fascism in the same way ‘pure socialism’ on a communist model is hostile to true socialism and has always turned into state fascism.

    So the very term ‘mixed economy’ could be errant. The only ‘real’ capitalist systems possible require regulation to prevent capital from overwhelming market forces, while the only ‘real’ socialist systems possible require freedom of economic opportunity in a capitalist sense.

    My soliloquy aside, a ‘mixed economy’ is (usually) a capitalist economic system in which the government regulates the system to protect it from itself. As our economy has become less ‘mixed’, historically speaking, it has either lad to socially harmful inequities  (the Gilded Age, the Reagan Era, the economic state of the country immediately prior to the recent credit crisis) or actual economic collapse (the credit scandal of the Grant Presidency and the resultant stock market crash, the Great Depression, the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the current economic crisis) as corruption has ‘broken’ the system.

  6. 6
    Ron says:

    The big government nanny-state is based on the assumption that free markets can’t provide the maximum good for the largest number of people.  It assumes people are not smart or responsible enough to take care of themselves, and thus their needs must be filled through the government’s forcible redistribution of wealth.  Our system of intervention assumes that politicians and bureaucrats have superior knowledge, and are endowed with certain talents that produce efficiency.  These assumptions don’t seem to hold much water, of course, when we look at agencies like FEMA.  Still, we expect the government to manage monetary and economic policy, the medical system, and the educational system, and then wonder why we have problems with the cost and efficiency of all these programs.

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:

    “The big government nanny-state is based on the assumption that free markets can’t provide the maximum good for the largest number of people.”

    You confuse “big government nanny-state” with all government. You are also incorrect as to the assumption. Free markets generally provide the maximum good–but only when necessary controls are in place. Markets are not things out of nature controlled by an invisible hand as conservatives and libertarians who are ignorant of economics believe.

    “It assumes people are not smart or responsible enough to take care of themselves, and thus their needs must be filled through the government’s forcible redistribution of wealth”

    False–that is not the assumption at all and believing this shows poor understanding of both what others believe and of the role of government.

    “Our system of intervention assumes that politicians and bureaucrats have superior knowledge, and are endowed with certain talents that produce efficiency”

    Again this is false. The system is based upon the necessary infrastructure which markets require to work, not any belief that they have any superior knowledge or talents.

    “These assumptions don’t seem to hold much water, of course, when we look at agencies like FEMA.”

    You misread this as you have false misconceptions as to “these assumptions” as well as to the reality of the situation. The problem with FEMA was that we had a government made up of right wingers who do not believe that government can work, and they prove this in their incompetence. The fact that government does not work under conservatives who fail to understand economics and the needs of public policy does not mean that it cannot work.

    “Still, we expect the government to manage monetary and economic policy, the medical system, and the educational system, and then wonder why we have problems with the cost and efficiency of all these programs.”

    While the market works best in most areas, there are areas where it does not work. There are also areas where regulation is necessary for the market to work. We don’t expect government to manage the medical system. What we do need is stricter regulation of the insurance industry because of the inability of the market to handle this. The market has led to a system where insurance companies make their profits by denying care and the individual market is barely functional any more, leaving many who cannot obtain care. Government handles this more efficiently than the market. For example, private insurance companies require about 13% more to handle the Medicare market than the government Medicare program does.

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