Monday, April 05, 2010

The "Big Government" Myth

In the political conversation, when someone says that the government should provide, for instance, unemployment compensation to those who have lost jobs through no fault of their own, that person is said by Conservatives to be “for big government.” One hears that phrase very frequently in Conservative speeches and advertisements, that an opponent is “in favor of big government.”

The minute that one suggests that the government should do anything of a non-military nature, one is branded as being in favor of “big government,” while expansion of the military is, of course, not “big government” at all. Laws regulating moral behavior of citizens is not considered to be “big government,” while laws regulating anything else is “big government.”

Do not accuse Conservatives of being inconsistent; illogical, yes, but not inconsistent.

I don’t usually write in the genre of disparaging the opposition; there is a reason for that which is significant but is for another day. This phrase “big government” needs discussion, however, because it is often central to the debate and is used more as an epithet than as an argument; and it is an accusation often hurled falsely.

Because I espouse causes usually considered liberal, safety net and regulation issues, I would draw the accusation of being in favor of “big government,” and that would be entirely false. I believe that government should be as small as it can possibly be. I believe that the government should have the minimum possible impact on the day-to-day activity of people and businesses in this nation. I believe that the government should not collect one dollar more in taxes than is absolutely necessary to provide the necessary services it provides.

The question is, what are the “necessary services” that it should provide?

The answer to that is complex and each of us will, in any case, answer it differently. For me, though, the size of government is not an issue determined on its own merit, but is determined by the answer to that question. The government should be only as “big” as it needs to be in order to provide those necessary services.

The worthiness of each social program needs to be weighed on the scale of governmental impact; is the societal benefit of the individual program worth the cost in taxes and size of government? I’ve seen many where the answer is clear that it is. In other cases the answer might be that the good that would be done is outweighed by the harmful effect of creating more taxes and “big government” than can be justified.

But the question is not simply what size the government should be.

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