Monday, September 13, 2010


"Small Government" pros and cons

Let me make a distinction at the beginning of this little essay. There are two different ideas about what "small government" means. One idea, that of the businessman, is that small government doesn't publish and try to enforce regulations that annoy him or cause him extra expense. The other idea is that any government is liable to be taken over by a tyrant. A tyrannical small government is preferable to a tyrannical big one. Better a Huey Long in one State than a Hitler in an whole country. Personally, I have no patience with the businessman's idea of "small" government. I take seriously the idea of avoiding a large government that becomes tyrannical.

Let us consider an ideal case of "small" government. It is a democracy (or a republic). It interferes as little as possible in the lives of its citizens. It doesn't spend a lot; therefore it doesn't tax a lot. It provides few services. Fire protection is left to individual volunteer fire brigades whose members drop what they're doing and rush to the fire to put it out or, at least, to prevent it from spreading to neighboring buildings. Police protection is provided by private firms that provide guard services for a price. The government does provide an army, mostly of volunteers, who gather to fight off a foreign invader. The government issues money, keeps records of real estate transactions, provides courts to deal with civil suits, and provides some regulation of large enterprises, such as dams for navigation, irrigation, and power.

Would you be happy living with such a government? You might be if you lived two hundred years ago when you were clearing land you had just occupied. All you needed from the government then was an army or a militia to protect you from the indigenous people who formerly occupied the land you now claim.

I think that today you would want government to provide more than the minimum of services it provided two centuries ago. You would certainly want effective police protection and effective response to a fire. You would want government to provide, or cause to be provided, clean drinking water. Other desirable services are adequate electric power, gas for heating and cooking, sewers for draining away waste, and maintained roads and highways. You would want the air you breathe to be as clean as the air you would have breathed 200 years ago. I think that if you thought carefully about the issue of "small" vs. "large," you would incline toward "large" government.

This "large" government that provides all the services you need for living in a large city may or may not be tyrannical. It will certainly be expensive, more expensive than the ideal "small" government. One way or another, this "large" government will collect taxes of various kinds. You will pay a tax on your real estate, your income, the things you buy, your car, etc., etc., etc. If you see the government as tyrannical or even as unrepresentative, you will complain about taxes. City governments tend to be isolated from the citizens of the city simply because of the size of the city and its population. The city may have a representative government, but each elected representative three hundred thousand individuals. It's pretty hard for each of these constituents to have a one-on-one discussion with their representative. Two hundred years ago cities were smaller and representatives had fewer constituents and they were not as isolated from each other as today.

The coming election pits conservative "small government" people against liberal "large government" people. That's an oversimplification to be sure but it does represent at least one category of ideas involved in the election. It might be a good idea if we could agree, once and for all, just what kind of government we want. The next election may decide the matter for a couple of years but not permanently.
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