The Conservative Myth of Small Government

A cornerstone of conservative politics is a preference for 'smaller government'. Submitted for your consideration is a question: Is the notion of small government real or a convenient (possibly even a dangerous) myth?

It's a bit simplistic but essentially Mankind has been governed by four forces throughout history: mysticism, power, money and the law. None is a perfect solution with each saddled with limitations and dangers. At different times, the relative proportion of influence exerted by any one of these forces varies and it is also true that certain of these forces may co-opt others. Examples of the latter include theocracy's and authoritarian states. Mysticism, power or money based systems of power tend to corrupt their legals systems either by enacting new laws which further their reach or eliminating those extant laws which might mitigate or check their influence and power.

The fallacy in the small government philosophy is the assumption that less government (fewer laws) equates with reduced overall control in our lives. I.e., the other governing forces won't just expand to fill the resultant gap. History suggests that this may not be the result.

It also ignore the real possibility that these other governance forces may benefit directly from an elimination of legal restrictions to their power. This seems particularly true of our recent history.

A potentially valid assessment of the Reagan/Bush era is that reduced government simply lead to a greater proportion of our governance being handed off to economic interests outside of public oversight. As the current greed driven collapse of the economy suggests, this may have been a Faustian bargain.

My preference is the law, or the judicious use of representative government as a check on the other three. The law and government is an imperfect solution no doubt. A frustrating aspect of the law and governmental influences is that they are often affected by a wide range of divergent interests resulting in low progress and inherent compromise. But these compromises may prevent power from becoming too concentrated in the hands of a few - the usual outcome of economic governance such as that we we have now. It is precisely this frustration which can check governmental power.


Harvey said...


"Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
I realize that I do not need to point this out to most who will read your post, but I think that this statement, along with the ideas in our constitutional form of government (i.e. Division of powers within our government) with iots of "checks and balances" goes a long way to prevent any of these from gaining complete control over all the others. Unfortunately, even our system is subject to eventual creeping increase in control by one chamber of power over the others. That is why it is a good thing that our two party system tends to undo the excesses of previous administrations, although this, in turn, accounts for much of the slowness and inertia we see in government getting anything accomplished.

mac said...

I fail to see the smaller, less intrusive government conservativism promised me a couple of decades ago.

As a youngster, I felt drawn to these principals, feeling a lot like you mentoin here. I have since seen that to not be true.

I suppose, I prefer a Jeffersonian conservativism...if such a thing is possible?

Michael Lockridge said...

The previous administration had no real aspirations toward the limited government I long to see. However, that longing is neither practical nor is it truly desirable.

In an ideal world I would live within walking distance of any decision makers who might actually impact my life. I could talk to them directly.

Obviously, in a world as large and as interconnected as this world happens to be such a simplistic system would not serve. I cannot see any structure that would serve to regulate this complex system that would also insure the degree of freedom I desire.

That being said, I recognize that I do experience a great deal of freedom. I am simply troubled by a world that seems intent on intruding into my life, rather than just being there for me to experiences (or not) as I choose.

It is especially ironic that I long for freedom, yet earn my living by restricting the freedom of others on behalf of the State.

Contradictions are delightful!


Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Contradictions are delightful!

They are indeed. Without them we would be machines instead of human.