How Small Government Rhetoric Misses the Mark

Modern conservative politics is largely divorced from reality, preferring abstraction and utopian schemes that wither in the face of the Left’s endless crusade against civil society. Conservatives also tend to have an overweening nostalgia for the past, which blinds them to the necessary re-thinking they need to do in order to resuscitate their movement.

Another important problem that has befuddled conservatism for quite some time concerns the rhetoric conservatives employ. David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation wrote recently about this dilemma:

There is a pronounced tendency on the Right to reduce politics to a zero-sum contest for liberty between the individual and the state. Conservatives may still live like Tocquevillians, but they tend to speak like Randians.

While it was understandable in the 1950s and ’60s to draw a distinction between America and the tyranny of the Soviet regime, pitting individual liberty against the state is out of step in the circumstances we face today. In a time of increasing atomization where there are fewer mediating institutions between the individual and the state, such language has the effect of intensifying the very phenomena that are behind the dissolution of civil society.

As Alexis de Tocqueville taught, extreme individualism and a towering state are but two sides of the same coin.

Since this argument suggests that there is a direct correlation between individual liberty and the size of government, it would seem to follow that the smaller the government is, the better.

Mark Levin, a lawyer who hosts a top rated radio show, recently lambasted the Republican Party for not being “a party of small government.” The perpetual dream of Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, is to have a government small enough to “drown in a bathtub.”

Thinking about politics in this Manichean manner, however, mistakes one possible benefit of a just government for the summum bonum or entire end of government—the thing before which all other political considerations must kneel.

But “small government” is much too simplistic a concept to be a principle that guides prudent statesmanship. How does one know when government is small enough? What is the limiting principle?

Federal spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product is currently around 22 percent. In 1930, spending as a percentage of GDP was just over 3 percent. But when did things go wrong? When federal spending rose to 15 percent of GDP? 20 percent?

As Charles Kesler has noted, empirical calculations alone cannot inform us when government breaches the bounds of its just prerogatives and infringes upon our rights. It is for this reason that Aristotle argued that politics—not mathematics—is the highest science for a human being to study.

If “small government” as a principle could be defined with precision, what policy considerations would flow from it? How does small-government orthodoxy deal with the opioid crisis or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs? How would it make sense of what to do about North Korea or the mess we’ve made in the Middle East?

align=”right” Even if small government rhetoric could serve as the foundation for a robust politics, that rhetoric is largely unconnected to the American political tradition. Apart from the most radical Anti-Federalists, most founders did not think of political life in this thin, one-dimensional way.

Small government rhetoric divorces prudence from politics, making politics a game of solitary tic-tac-toe rather than a crowded Texas Hold’em poker tournament, where a combination of skill, luck, and experience is required to succeed.

Reducing politics to abstractions not grounded in real life is why politicians such as Ron Paul, despite their popularity in certain circles, have failed to win over even a minimal part of the electorate. If the people’s concerns are pitted against balance sheets, their concerns will win 10 times out of 10.

Even if small government rhetoric could serve as the foundation for a robust politics, that rhetoric is largely unconnected to the American political tradition. Apart from the most radical Anti-Federalists, most founders did not think of political life in this thin, one-dimensional way.

Rather, the founders viewed securing the people’s interests and protecting their rights from violence as part of the requirements of a just political order. “Justice,” James Madison argued in Federalist 51, “is the end of government. It is the end of civil society.”

Unless small government can be equated with achieving full justice, it is best understood only as a potential benefit of a just government limited to securing the common good and protecting civil society for future generations.

Conservatives, then, shouldn’t focus exclusively on the actual size of government per se but whether government is operating within its limits as prescribed by the Constitution. They should talk about limited government, not small government. For a Hamiltonian government that focuses on energetically carrying out its limited powers is not a threat to the people’s liberties.

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About Mike Sabo

Mike Sabo is a writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio and a graduate of the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College.

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14 responses to “How Small Government Rhetoric Misses the Mark

  • The author seems to suggest that conservatives should abandon conservatism and embrace government intervention as the solution to all of our problems. True conservatives believe it is not the role of government to pick winners and losers in economics nor to act like a nanny weaning Americans off opioids.

    • The authors point here is well taken. No matter what one thinks the National government’s proper activities are and are not, you have to admit that the principles of limited government are not being sold effectively to the average American.

  • Sabo is quite wrong in asserting that Hamiltonian government is not a threat to the people’s liberties. That has always been the Hillsdale College line. But since the mid-20th C., the Supreme Court has been functioning the way the stinking Federalists originally intended.

    The Federalist Papers are simply Federalist propaganda and were never cited before 1900, when the Progressives gained control of the Supreme Court.

  • I believe in common parlance, small government means to most citizens much LESS bureaucracy and over regulation (micro-management), especially at the federal level. Federal government has indeed become a Goliath. We had hope Trump was our David but the powers of the deep state seem to think he’s a petulant brat that needs his slingshot taken away.

  • When we secularized, we moved things from the Church (schools, soup kitchens, hospitals) and civic organizaions (Kiwanas, Lions Club, Shriners) to the State. And the Cuckservatives and LIbertarians don’t understand that the foundation of American civic life was those church and civic organizations which DeToqueville pointed out.
    This is because they don’t want to restore the hollowed out middle. Churches might ask for some responsibility for gay debauchery or out of wedlock births. The civic organizations might be very picky and negotiate with big phrama or big med and shame them into cutting prices. The Crony capitalists prefer big government too.

    Government was small because separation of “church” (and I’ll include voluntary organizations) meant that the line limited GOVERNMENT, but now it reduces churches to an almost irrelevancy.

    The secularists and atheists, and the regieme churchian prophets of Baal don’t want to move the line back. And that is the only way to return to small government, by having others take up the functions. Nor do the secularists and socialists want to do the charitable organizations themselves – where is the Dawkins hospital? The Harris soup kitchen? Only Christians (and some Jews) will build charities to address the societal problems without government.

    • Harris actually donates to Givewell, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Doctors Without Borders, and the Against Malaria Foundation. Dawkins’s foundation also supports secular charities. The idea that atheists and secularists don’t support charity is disproven by the many non religious charities out there.

      • Academic studies consistently show that individuals self-identified as religious are more charitable with both their time and money than the non-religious. That is not to say that non-religious people are never charitable or generous but only that on average the religious are more generous than the non-religious.

        Big government crowds out private actors. This intuitive notion is borne out by academic studies. Burke’s “little platoons” are much less numerous in America than before 1960. That Big Government has played a critical role in this social transformation can hardly be doubted.

      • The problem here is that you’re ignoring the fact that the developed countries where there is more irreligious sentiment also have more generous social safety nets that preclude the need for charity. Big government may well crowd out private actors, but when done properly, it also makes them less necessary.

      • Americans are the most charitable people in all of modern history. No other Western nation can match America in charitable giving, as numerous studies show. It is worth noting that Europeans were more charitable when their religious faith was greater. Americans will likely follow the same pattern as the tide of religious belief recedes from America as it did from Dover Beach. There is some evidence that the size of government diminishes charitable giving at the margin, but a culture shaped by Christian belief (rather than limited government) clearly has been the primary driver of charitable giving in the West. (Note that as a skeptical agnostic I have no personal bias on this question. I just follow the data.) Secularists may be cheered by the waning of Christian faith in the West but the end result is likely to be societies that in their interactions between individuals are less generous, less trusting, and less law abiding as the secular religion of Cultural Marxism fills the void. These trends will be magnified across the West by increasing immigration (with decreasing assimilation) from alien ethno-religious groups (other than East Asians).

  • Took you long enough to get it out, but your last 3 sentences say it all: “Conservatives, then, shouldn’t focus exclusively on the actual size of government per se but whether government is operating within its limits as prescribed by the Constitution. They should talk about limited government, not small government. For a Hamiltonian government that focuses on energetically carrying out its limited powers is not a threat to the people’s liberties.”

  • “How Small Government Rhetoric Misses the Mark”

    Who are these writers who believe conservatives don’t understand the difference between “small government” and “limited government”???

    How about this for a concept:

    “Small government IS limited and large government is UNLIMITED.”

    And that doesn’t miss the mark at all.

  • They should talk about limited government, not small government.

    “Limited government” is another term with an elastic meaning. For many libertarians and members of the right-wing establishment, “limited government” simply means “that government control over which is limited to a certain small class of people”. They don’t accept limits on what that class may do with power. In this respect they are very similar to their fellows on the left. For such people (the NROniks for instance) “limited government” becomes just a nice-sounding brand label for elitism and anti-populism.

  • Limited and small government are really a distinction without a difference. Everyone of us on the small government right – even the Objectivists but maybe not the libertarians – are fine with a government energetic within its proper scope. What we are not okay with is a government that goes beyond its proper scope of protecting individual rights from threats domestic and foreign.

    Regarding the issue of abstractions and such, I would simply note the example of our Founders. Confronted with the failings of the Articles of Confederation and the possibility of imminent domestic anarchy (untrammeled democracy), they did the highly “impractical” thing of debating the very fundamental theoretical and abstract notion of government. What they understood, and what most modern conservatives (especially those with a reverence for Russell Kirk or Edward Burke) miss is that theory (abstractions) is supposed to be a guide for practical action. A sound theory is a highly useful thing. As Hayek once observed, “Absent theory, the facts are silent.”

    A theory is simply a general explanation of some aspect of reality, firmly grounded in reality and derived from observation. Abstraction thus proceeds from concrete individual things. The entirety of the Declaration of Independence and the bulk of the Federalist papers demonstrates this clearly. Abandoning general principles to guide us is like trying to win a war through tactics, without a strategy – and we’ve seen how well that works.

    Ironically, despite the statement that many conservatives sound like Randians (the actual term is Objectivists), Ayn Rand is the one person most of them run from like the plague. That’s because she long ago – and whatever her shortcomings – recognized that absent a coherent, rational framework, a system of free enterprise and limited government would fail. She long ago castigated conservatives for trying to rest our system on a foundation of tradition, religion, altruism, or appeals to a narrow sense of “practicality” rather than truth and morality. The intolerant, ignorant, anti-American left, in some cases actual communists, incredibly claim the moral high ground, and all too often conservatives take a variation of the press’ “their hearts are in the right place” attitude. Rand tersely noted almost a century ago that every victory of the left came about because men granted the morality and idealism of their cause and merely deplored their methods.

    Rand is also remarkably relevant to the situation on campus today. I suggest someone read her collection of essays “The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution” and tell me, without looking, what year it was written in and whether anything has changed.

    If we on the right can’t connect freedom for the individual and the promise of limited government to our citizens in a coherent way, then we will lose to the left regardless of our message. That Trump, deeply flawed in many ways, won, speaks to a yearning for something very different than our current politics. The opportunity is there, but people are confused, hold mixed premises and contradictory impulses, and until we on the right face those and define a coherent alternative, the future looks bleak. If we abandon limited government and individual rights, though, we will simply drive off the cliff faster.

  • “Federal spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product is currently around 22 percent. In 1930, spending as a percentage of GDP was just over 3 percent. But when did things go wrong?”

    It didn’t “go wrong” all at once but following are some watershed events:

    1-The War Between the States

    2-World War II

    3-The Civil Rights Act of 1964

    4-The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

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