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.