Does Big/Strong Government Make Us Less Free?

I’ve heard people saying that government is best that governs least (yeah, I’m great friends with Jefferson) and that Big Government, by nature, takes our freedoms.

Now, what’s the difference (if any) between Big Government and Strong Government? Can we get one without the other?

There’s tons of wiggle room with these terms. I’d like to get a definition down before we start the debating before we get to page 2 or 3 and wander off into how Libertarianism is the new Republicanism.

Strong government is traditionally government that has very few limitations hampering it from passing whatever edicts it chooses to pass. Big government, on the other hand, is government with a huge budget to pay for the implementation of whatever edicts it does pass. They do tend to coincide.

I see no location tag for you, but since you mentioned Jefferson I’ll guess that there’s a more than decent chance that you’re American, as I am. The American government was set up to be not too strong. “Big” doesn’t seem to have been an original concern. Concern about Big Gov came along later, long after the taxation system had evolved into a tool that had the potential for skimming off a substantial amount of folks’ personal profit and putting it into the hands of the government. Not that revenue from taxpayers is the government’s only option w/regards to being or becoming “Big” — they can also run a deficit (and we have one, big time) or they can simply devalue the currency by printing more money and tossing a chunk of it back to themselves to spend (result: inflation, or hidden tax).

The “Strong” Government attitude, which appears to be in the ascendancy but not without opposition, runs along the lines “the government needs to be able to do what it needs to do to protect the rest of us, and should not be hamstrung by limitations that hamper it or slow it down”. The opposition to “Strong Government” is, as you said, Jeffersonian: that the government derives its powers from the consent of the governed, and if the governed do not consent the government is out of line and should be upbraided and, if necessary, taken out of the picture and replaced with a government that won’t forget its place.

The “Big Government” critics have a counter-voice as well: that there are a decent double-handful of things that need doing but which aren’t ecomically profitable in the doing of, but having them done benefits people in general. Enacting and enforcing pollution controls, ensuring that companies don’t still discriminate unfairly in hiring practices, maintaining a viable interstate highway system where the roads are good even in the way-underpopulated states, going into space, and maintaining a viable army during peacetime just in case. And that the people whose taxes are mostly paying for this are people in the upper income brackets, whose success is not only due to the rest of us but is also to a decent extent enabled by these very improvements (i.e, they benefit from the highways, the security provided by the army, the ancillary tech discoveries made by the space program, and even by the greater & more equitable talent pool created by eradicating the vestiges of categorical discrimination).

The countercharge to that is that a lot of those programs are either embued with perpetuality when they should be temporary (e.g., race and gender discrimination protections —clearly the intention here was to address historical unfairnesses, and at some point if not necessarily today already, there should cease to be a hostile environment in employment for racial minorities and for women, so why don’t the supporters of such initiatives talk about when to phase them out and whether the time is now or not yet? Because the beneficiaries won’t keep voting for them, silly!).

There are also redistributivists to be concerned about. People who believe that the very nature of capitalism ensures that money will concentrate into the hands of people who don’t necessarily deserve it, but rather who had more capital resources than anyone else in the previous iteration and having money breeds more money without quality effort or merit having anything to do with it. Such people support whatever piecemeal endeavors exist that work to redistribute money from those who have a lot of it to those who have less, regardless of official reason given for the program’s existence. Because it is piecemeal, they embrace the creation of categories that loosely map to “who is richer” and “who is poorer” and then seek to add to the categories in order to expand the processes. Such people would not care if, in hiring and promotion, gender or race ceases to be a factor in who gets the nod — they would want to preserve the Affirmative Action effort until, in net worth terms, being white ceases to predict that you’re likely to be a wealthier person, and being male ceases to predict that you’re likely to be a wealthier person.

Is there a viable case to be made that affirmative action is still necessary for black Americans (and also other nonwhite Americans), and for female Americans, even if we aren’t redistributivists and only concern ourselves with the opportunities for incoming (and promotion-seeking) members of the relevant groups? Yes, I think so. If I were a politican I would support affirmative action FOR NOW, with very strong statements that the legitimacy of such programs hinges on a belief in their eventual success, which in turn calls for their demise. I would assemble stats and I would talk about accomplishments and trajectory and I would speak of a time when those who advocate abandoning affirmative action are right, and I would say we should shout “hallelujah” when the time comes, but despite progress etc we’re not quite there. Some other politician might base a campaign on the notion that we are too there and that yes the time has come.

Is fear of ahem TERRORISTS a legitimate reason to embrace Strong Government, let our government do what it must to keep us safe from deliberate but random violence? Yeah, if you’re a terrorist. But from my perspective, and, I hope, from yours, no. They can only kill each of us once. And in the US they aren’t very good at it. You stand a far better chance of getting killed by your taxi driver’s driving skills than by a terrorist’s activities even if you live where I do (Manhattan). If you live in Kansas City or Denver or Miami, you have an infinitely greater likelihood of losing your freedom from our government getting uppity than from anything Osama & Co have in mind. Seems like they like to attack the big BlueState metropolitan areas, particularly mine. Take a deep breath and count their successes. WTC 2001. That’s essentially it for the US. The London Underground and some other victims elsewhere, yes, but they really haven’t done a good job of making it unsafe to be an American. Smell the coffee. Our own gov is the threat to your freedom, and their motivation isn’t necessarily the protection of you from Osama et. al. Sorry if you had to read it here first.

Ths history of the federal government in the US shows an expansion of rights and freedoms and individual authority, but very damn little of that was initiated by the government itself for idealistic reasons, if at all. Lord Acton’s corollary says that Power Expands. We granted our own government power, but we must always be on our guard, suspicious of own government as all patriots are, because it is a law of nature that they will seek more, and we must always question that and be ready to deprive them of it when doing so seems appropriate, and it usually does.

Paragraph 5:

… or they are corrupt, with elected and appointed persons on the federal payroll turning the initiative into a cash cow, and not working towards the elimination of the problem (oh no of course not) but rather settling in to make a lucrative career of “addressing” the situation…and in the process issuing a mountain of red tape requirement-hoops that American businesses must jump through.

Sorry, forgot I’d started an either/or clause!

The Byzantine Empire had a notoriously Big Government (bloated and top-heavy with privileged, salaried bureaucrats) even when it did not have a Strong Government (capable of actually defending the borders and controlling events on the ground within them).

Well, the Byzantines (like we in America) had the luxury of location. An easily defended location, Byzantium would have fallen much earlier to the Turks if it were located virtually anywhere else. We Americans have giant ponds surrounding us, insulating us from international conflict.

Don’t forget, the absence of strong government can also make people less free as well as less safe. Not that strong government can’t be oppressive, of course, it’s just that it’s not an either-or thing.

Being a small-l libertarian, I tend to think that all other things being equal, a small government is better than a large one. The problem is that all other things are not equal. The proper functioning of the government is a far more important factor than its size.

I want a big-enough defense department, provided its purpose is to keep us free. I want a big-enough police department, provided its purpose is to keep me safe in my home and in the streets. I want a big-enough system of courts, provided its purpose is to be fair and impartial. I want a big-enough fire department and sanitation department and public works department, even though I think some of these functions should be privatized.

But what I don’t want is 1000 useless bureaucrats for every soldier, police officer or judge. And what I don’t want is a government, big or small, snooping into my personal life, especially my bedroom. But this has nothing to do with size. A small tyranny is just as reprehensible as a large one.