Ken Connor

Let's face it. Americans love things that are big. We love big houses, big cars, and Big Gulps. We supersize our meals, our TV sets and even our golf clubs (Big Bertha has revolutionized the game of many a duffer). Athletes take steroids to make themselves bigger, and people who are not satisfied with their natural endowments resort to surgery to bolster their appeal. After all, in America, size matters.

Regrettably, however, our love affair with all things big appears to extend to government. Government spending relative to GDP has grown dramatically in the past century—from 5.5% to 28.9%. Federal deficits have risen from $50.7 billion in 1940 to an estimated $9.3 trillion in 2007. In the past decade, total state spending increased a whopping 88%, from $628,634,000,000 to $1,184,146,000,000. Clearly, the era of big government is back.

When it comes to government, however, smaller is better than bigger and you get more with less.

More what? More freedom.

There is, you see, an inverse relationship between the size of government and the amount of freedom we enjoy. As government expands, freedom shrinks. As government shrinks, freedom expands. Less government, more freedom—it's as simple as that.

Historically conservatives have understood the relationship between the size of government and the scope of our freedoms. Hence, conservatives have typically been advocates of smaller government. Somewhere along the way, however, they seem to have lost their bearings. Under President Bush and the Republican controlled Congress (most of whom campaigned as "conservatives"), government spending reached new highs and the size of government grew dramatically—so much so that a new phrase was coined, "big government conservative."

Some describe a "big government conservative" as an "oxymoron." Others, less charitably, just use the phrase "moron." Regardless of the descriptor that is used, the result is the same—those who promote the growth of government do so at the expense of freedom.

Here are a few points we do well to keep in mind as we reflect on the size of government and the scope of our freedoms:

First, money is the means by which government sustains itself. Money is to government as food is to people. The size of government is directly proportional to the amount of money available to it. The more money government has, the bigger it gets. If we want to shrink the size of government, we must reduce the amount of money available to it. There is no other way to shrink the bureaucracy. This is the same reality that those of us who are overweight must face when we want to slim down. We simply must cut back on our intake. It is an inconvenient truth. Exercise is helpful, but portion control is essential.

Second, "security" is one of the most effective cards bureaucrats play to justify the growth of government. All of us want to be safe, and the first duty of government is to provide for the safety and security of its people. As citizens, however, we must be vigilant to restrain unwarranted encroachments by government on our liberties. Cameras shadowing our every move in public places, wire taps on American citizens, retrieval of phone records on millions of law abiding American citizens—are these actions truly necessary to protect our security? If we want to remain free, we do well to have a high index of suspicion about each and every encroachment on our civil liberties. We should make the government justify each and every action that intrudes on our freedom. We should not just accept the government's explanations at face value. Benjamin Franklin got it right when he stated, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Dwight Eisenhower was even more pointed when he said, "If you want total security, go to prison. There you're fed, clothed, given medical care, and so on. The only thing lacking…is freedom." These two men paid a high price to secure our liberty. As beneficiaries of their sacrifices, we should attach no less value to our freedoms than they did.

Third, freedom flourishes in the sunshine. Unwarranted secrecy subverts it. Therefore, claims for the need for secrecy on the part of government should be closely scrutinized. While there are, without a doubt, occasions where secrecy on the part of government is warranted, a healthy skepticism is in order. The "state secrets privilege" has been invoked by government to compel the dismissal of certain lawsuits in order to avoid the revelation of sensitive information. Since the privilege was first recognized by the courts in 1953, it was invoked by the government only 64 times in the 48 years before September 11, 2001. In the last six years however, the Bush Administration has invoked the "state secrets" privilege a record 39 times. This is 5 times the rate of previous administrations!

In a recent case under consideration by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Deputy Solicitor General, Gregory Garre, argued that the courts ought to immediately dismiss any case when informed by a department of the executive branch that it may endanger state secrets. The court would do well to reject such a position. Judges ought not simply "rubber stamp" decisions of the executive. Our history demonstrates that government will not hesitate to abuse the "state secrets privilege" to conceal wrongdoing by its functionaries. Remember the Pentagon Papers debacle where the government sought to suppress information of illegal government activity by invoking the state secrets privilege? And who can forget the secret surveillance conducted at the direction of F.B.I. Director, J. Edgar Hoover (the government's number one G- man)? The dossiers he maintained as a result of those illegal, but secret, activities were used as part of a blackmail scheme against other government officials to perpetuate his position in office.

So America, be careful what you wish for. Bigger is not always better—especially when it comes to government. As President Ford noted, "A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take from you everything you have."


Ken Connor

Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC.