“Small Government” Idiocy

As long as I’ve been writing commentary on this site, I’ve received comments from proponents of  “small government,” who argue, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan and others, that small  government is better. 

What few of these proponents of “small government” seem to understand is that the combination of small government and high technology is not a recipe for freedom, but for oppression of everyone but the well-off by the well-off.  Now… I am not anywhere close to a fan of government for the sake of government or for more bureaucracy and government agencies, but the problem we face as a society is that technology, especially high technology, requires bigness, and bigness equals power, and government, and sometimes not even government, is about all that can rein in concentrated corporate power.

At one point, the United States did have small government.  We didn’t have food inspections, and the amount of tainted, spoiled, and bad food sold was enormous.  We didn’t have environmental regulations, and most major rivers were dead or dying, and little could live in them, and several were so polluted they caught fire.  The air was so filled with soot in some cities that white shirts were gray by noon. We didn’t have banking regulations, and on a regular basis there were widespread bank failures where depositors lost everything.  We didn’t even have standardized time zones, and train schedules were essentially unusable.

Today, the United States and the world is far more advanced – and complex. There are over 80,000 flights in the United States every day. Major airports average a takeoff and landing every 1-4 minutes. Despite all the complaints, the U.S. averages about one major commercial accident a year, and some years have passed without any. Without government-imposed uniform standards for operations, safety, and maintenance, those numbers would be far higher.  Without regulation of the communications spectrum, broadcasting would be either chaos or the property of broadcasters with the biggest wallets and the most powerful transmitters.

Despite the complaints and the touting of industry about its innovation, without government funding and research, we wouldn’t have the internet or the I-Phone.  Nor would we have the interstate highway system.  We would also have millions of people living and dying in extreme poverty – as they once did – as opposed to a less than perfectly efficient welfare/disability system that results in a much less than desirable and barely adequate standard of living for a majority of the unemployed or unemployable.

Yet despite the progress created by government, imperfect as it is, there is a lack of recognition of how it has improved life in the United States for virtually everyone, and the cries for small government continue.  What these people want, it seems to me, is less government regulation over that sector of commerce, business, or life that is most important to them, in particular, and fewer rules and regulations that impede their freedom of action and ability to maximize profits. 

Government is anything but perfect, and in many areas, its regulations are indeed cumbersome and sometime unnecessary.  In other areas, the regulations don’t work, and in some areas, more regulation is likely necessary.  But what that means is that we need more effective and efficient government, not the “small government” so often touted by both ultra-conservatives and ultra-libertarians. We tried small government, and it didn’t work for a moderately complex industrializing society, and it certainly won’t work for a society that’s even more complex in a world that is getting ever more complicated.

But then, the history of small government, and its copious failures, has already been forgotten, as so much of unpleasant history is, lost in the nostalgia for a time that never was.

14 thoughts on ““Small Government” Idiocy”

  1. Grey says:

    I agree with you, but my sense is that when people complain and wish for “small government,” it is really a euphemism for disabling the welfare/disability system.

    None of them want to focus on the ‘what happens with no government’ story because they have no response to the plane crashes and food poisoning outcomes you mention.

    In my experience, virtually every discussion I have had on this topic with an enthusiast begins with some nominal comments about the EPA and job-killing regulators (seemingly almost for the sake of form) before they quickly move on to a makers & takers / Atlas Shrugged theme.

  2. Firstly, I like reading your blogs as much as I do your books. I also agree with you down the line.

    We are a socially and technologically advanced civilization. With that comes the need for oversight in more areas than most can imagine. Governments represent the only bodies capable of doing that effectively, in a less than effective way, of course.

    I really don’t think people calling for “small government” are able to define what they mean by that. Even if one disregards the band-wagoners.

    Surely there is a desperate need for reduced spending, and perhaps many who call for “smaller government” are really asking for that.

    Honestly I don’t know what the answer is, not really sure if there even is one. Smaller Government? Useful as a slogan on a sign at one’s march of choice. Not much else.

  3. Jim S says:

    “Effective and efficient government”… Isn’t that a bit of an oxymoron at this point in time?

    I think I have a realistic view: we need enough government to do the things that the government MUST do, and no more. I’m not suggesting an unbridled free market or no regulation, but that bureaucracy has a tendency to create more bureaucracy, and that it needs to be aggressively pruned on a regular basis. At the same time — as you’ve noted quite well — there are things that simply must be done by the government because the fact is that people as a whole aren’t very altruistic.

    1. Grey says:

      Well, I think you have exposed the hard part there: What precisely is it that “government MUST do”? That is at the core of the big/small government debate and there isn’t a right answer; just opinions.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        As little as possible to keep the have-nots from rioting too often; without actually shooting them too often, either. Enough to keep people from spewing so much pollution that they endanger their otherwise healthy neighbors, but not quite so much as to protect every vulnerable person and creature that may exist. Fair weights and measures. Truth in advertising. Public schools for those who are willing to learn, and hard labor for those that aren’t (with a second chance at school after 90 days or so of the hard labor). A set of laws small enough that they can be consistently enforced rather than leaving the executive with too much discretion, and a tax system simple enough (sales tax, or modified flat tax) that anyone can understand it and that tax specialists can find something more productive to do.

        Not too much more than that…

        1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

          So, basically, if you don’t want to learn by a rigid system, then you have to essentially be a slave?

          The problem with education is not that people don’t want to learn, it’s that the system (in the US and UK) is currently set up more to get people through hoops rather than teach them to work out how to jump through those hoops themselves, and by a singular mindset. Some people learn by doing, others by copying, others by reading/seeing. The education system does not cater to all ways of learning, and it does not diversify enough. It’s not about problem-solving skills, it’s about being skilled at solving set problems. That is not how the world works.

          You wonder why people don’t want to learn and work? It’s because the education system doesn’t set you up for that. It kicks you out at the end if you don’t have a clear, high-reaching goal (engineer, designer, professor, astronaut, etc., etc.) with nothing more than a sheet of paper saying you’re vaguely capable at certain things. If you don’t want to go to college or university (which is entirely reasonable), you fall out of the system with no real ability to adapt to the world. What your system would do would increase the uneducated workforce exponentially, and that – in a world where technology is taking over many of the harder jobs – is just not feasible. You will easily double, triple, quadruple – even more – the unemployed work force. What does that do? You get a bunch of uneducated, unemployable people with nothing to do. What does this cause? Alcoholism. Fighting. Riots. Violence. Gangs. Huge rises in crime. Massive impoverished families. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. You know what the situation is with Indian Americans, and even in the ghettos with the African American, Hispanic, etc. populaces? That, but ten times worse.

          The problem with education is the fact that you have politicians, bureaucrats, religious persons, overprotective parents and so on interfering – it’s not the people in it.

          Your situation sounds more like a totalitarian regime than a functional, healthy society. You’re putting the onus on the populace for things they can’t control, rather than waving the finger at the people who cause the issues.

          Pollution? It’s the multinational corporations with off-site production in countries with much laxer environmental controls/laws.
          Truth in advertising? It’s the executives in the buildings with their cadre of lawyers, burying all logic and responsibility in small print.
          Education? Already spoken about that.
          Laws? That’s how legal systems already work. What they’re prone to is bias on the part of the judges and the enforcers. In the US you have a problem where males of minority ethnic groups (esp. blacks) are disproportionately incarcerated. In the UK we’re going through a phase where non-British born people are being illegally searched and arrested for, essentially, looking a little different and having an accent.
          Tax system? Yes, it is complex, on both sides of the pond. Will give you that, but… again, most people pay their taxes and pay them as correctly as they can given the complicated system. But do you know what the other tax problem is? Big multinational corporations fiddling figures and getting away with not paying *BILLIONS* in tax. Billions of whichever currency you prefer to think in are, each year, going unpaid in tax from the biggest firms and richest people, through fiddling their tax forms or using barely-legal workarounds (e.g. off-shore bank accounts).

          So, really, most problems could be solved by fairly and correctly taxing (and enforcing taxation) of these huge companies, by improving legislation, by pushing poorer/developing countries to improve their environmental/ecological protections and by overhauling the education system so it actually works.

          If you’re entirely serious, your ideals basically create a society with mass unemployment, poverty, disease, and massive corporations running riot over everything. How can people pay their taxes if they cannot read the forms or even earn money, for example? It would be an economic meltdown on a huge scale.

          If you’re being sarcastic, however, then well played…

  4. Indian says:

    The two points, including yours Mr Modesitt are not debating the same topic I feel.

    The people who object to big government are really objecting to big government powers that effectively protect big business interests in a grand state monopoly webbed by loyal lobbyists.

    Your point Mr Modesitt actually would apply to a small business that has access in todays world to high technology and can afford to challenge some of these government monopolies at a presumed cost to the environment and health of individuals.

    The real question is if a study can be commissioned to show if current regulations result in net savings to the environment and health of people, or merely protect big business from competitors under the guise of concern.

  5. Durin says:

    I think what anyone who would promote small government would agree that we also need government.

    Roads, Infrastructure, Military, a Referee for Free Market’s if you will.

    I will give you an example of Big Government run amok.

    I manage a small apartment complex. We had a small pool for our tenants use. This pool had been in operation from the mid 80’s and I was willing to maintain it so the Tenants could use it.

    Enter the new Pool regulations. I would have to spend $5,000.00 to update our pool to the new rules. It wasn’t worth spending the money so I drilled the pool and it is now a garden.

  6. Steve Newton says:

    First, a disclaimer: I do consider myself a libertarian, but certainly not “ultra” (I am a strong supporter of public schools and food inspections, for example). I chiefly chafe under the invasive civil liberties that go along with larger government and the enormous transfers of wealth via state regressive taxation from the poor and middle class to the wealthy.

    That said, I respond more as a historian. Your piece uses a number of examples, and to take them all on would be book-length and boring, so let’s just try one. You said that without big government we would not have the interstate highway system.

    Interesting choice, because it touches on the ability of a strong government to unwittingly commit a society to a certain economic and social course for decades (if not longer) without actually thinking about what is going to happen.

    The creation of the interstate highway system is associated with a number of developments that have arguably been less than wonderful.

    1. The system virtually killed passenger rail and seriously wounded freight rail systems in this country because it was built at a time when fossil fuel energy was at nearly an all-time low due to decreased demand from a devastated Europe and the not-as-yet-emerged developing world.

    2. The system provided the mechanism for the development of both “white flight” and the hollowing out of our core former industrial cities, creating a (so far, it seems) permanent tax structural imbalance between cities and the states in which they are embedded.

    3. The system tied the future of the US to individualized transportation based on fossil fuels and made it virtually impossible (financially and culturally) to build working models of regional mass transit.

    4. The system arguably affected US cold war policy and fueled both Eisenhower’s “brinksmanship” model and even the MAD doctrine because it failed to achieve early promises of quick evacuation of urban areas.

    Yes, you could list a countervailing set of “good” things to come out of the interstate system, but I don’t think that would invalidate my point.

    Nor are you correct in suggesting that such a transport system could not have arisen under smaller government, because that is in fact what happened during the growth of the railroads from 1830-1870. While there was government involvement it was nowhere near the level of what we see during 1950-1980 in the interstate period.

    My point: grand, sweeping arguments often fall prey to the “seven-league boots” (with apologies to Charles Beard) that are necessary to compact arguments. I think that the legitimate argument should not be over the size of government, but the role of government. Can we actually have a rational conversation in this country over what government should and should not do, and then give government the power and resources to do those things well that we agree upon?

    Or have we reached the point where dogma makes such a conversation impossible?

  7. I beg to differ on the scope of government involvement in the railroads. In providing incentives for the transcontinental railroad, Congress gave alternating sections of land to the railroads, that is, every other square mile along the right-of-way. Government oversight and planning may not have been as great, but that’s a great deal of land.

    While I agree with your comments about the automobile’s effect on mass transit, the fact is that well before the interstate system was being built, white flight was already beginning. Massive suburban towns were already in the works before the interstate system, and if you look at places that have tried not to expand highways, such as Washington, D.C., people are still building and commuting. The growth of the personal freedom provided by by the automobile is far more likely the driver than the interstate highway system.

    I don’t dispute what has occurred. I do dispute the emphasis you place on the interstate highway system.

    As for the railroads, I’ve seen several analyses that suggest the U.S. has one of the best freight rail systems in the world — and the worst passenger system. One analysis that compared Europe and the United States made the point that freight and passenger rail systems using the same tracks are incompatible, and that the U.S. opted for a “freight” system and Europe for a “passenger” system.

    The underlying assumption behind the blog was that, once Congress passed legislation we had “agreed” that what passed was a role for government, at least until Congress voted otherwise, and the question becomes how to handle the requirement effectively. If we can’t agree on what is law being law… then we’ll never agree on anything.

  8. Steve Newton says:

    If we can’t agree on what is law being law… then we’ll never agree on anything.

    Difficult proposition. Should I have agreed that once segregation laws were passed by different levels of government everyone should have shut up and just worked on how to implement them? Should I have agreed that once the Patriot Act was passed I should lose my convictions about civil liberties and spend my time looking for suspicious activity by my neighbors? Because the Fugitive Slave law was in the original US Constitution … OK those are, admittedly, different from highways or health care, but …

    If I believe that immigration reform is necessary but that a border fence represents all that is wrong with authoritarianism in America I should shut up because eventually Congress passes a law? I think you have created a standard that has never existed in American politics.

    I won’t go back and counter-argue the interstate system. It is an intricate issue. My point is that a laundry list of one-line assertions about the “good things” that big government has done for us requires a lot of generalization and a lot of smoothing over details.

    But I cannot resist pointing out that specifying 1830-1870 for railroads I was not focusing on the Transcontinental Railroad but the building of the Cis-Mississippi Railroad net. As I said, government did play a role, but that role was magnitudes smaller and of a completely different order than government played with interstate highways, and–comparing the size of the two economies–the building of that rail system (49,000 miles between 1830-1860 alone) represented a much larger societal (not governmental) endeavor than building the interstate highways did.

  9. Jim S says:

    I think that the points on both sides about the Interstate Highway System are interesting and valid. I think the presence of convenient, public interstates certainly facilitated individual travel rather than mass transit approaches — I also think that there’s a deeper culture or mindset that led us to select a more individualized approach when it became available.

    But what are the tasks that government must do? I think they can often be seen as having public safety at the heart. I’m not saying only the traditional public safety roles like police and fire & rescue services — but issues that rather directly threaten everyone if they’re not addressed. These are, to me, things like food safety, environmental protection, as well as traditional public safety. They’re areas that effect everybody, but that are easily ignored in favor of individual self-interest (like profits over low emission fuels or selling food that’s unsafe or unsanitary).

  10. Brian K says:

    When I speak of making government ‘smaller’, I’m not even thinking of axing some of the agencies noted above. Perhaps they can be reformed to make them more cost efficient and performance efficient, but not axed.

    I’m going to use an example from Australia to illustrate what I mean by making government smaller. Since their most recent election changed the government it has been revealed that the following agencies established by the previous administration are going to be axed. They are:

    Australian Animals Welfare Advisory Committee, Commonwealth Firearms Advisory Committee, National Inter-country Adoption Advisory Council; National Steering Committee on Corporate Wrongdoing, Antarctic Animal Ethics Committee, Advisory Panel on the Marketing in Australia of Infant Formula, Maritime Workforce Development Forum, Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing, Insurance Reform Advisory Group and the National Housing Supply Council among others.

    This is a government taking an axe to big government. This is a government performing surgery to remove cancerous growths on the body politic. This is making government smaller by shedding itself of such ‘idiocy’.

  11. I can’t disagree with you in the slightest on this point, and I don’t.

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