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How Big Should Government Be?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Where do you find the largest, most intrusive and liberty-violating form of government?

You may be tempted to answer North Korea, Cuba or (possibly) San Francisco, but none of these answers is correct. The most totalitarian forms of government are found in two much less exotic places: prisons and nurseries.

Say whatever you will about any despotic government on earth, even in their wildest dreams they can only fantasize about having the sort of control wardens and mothers exert routinely. To put the matter another way, what convict (or toddler) doesn’t dream of acquiring the sort of freedom experienced by ordinary citizens in Burma or Iran? But if, as we’ve often been told, totalitarianism is so intrinsically evil, why do we embrace it in these situations?

The answer is obvious.

In the nursery, a child is incompetent and must be constantly shepherded away from self-destruction. This entails controls of every sort. He is told what to eat, when to sleep, and with whom to associate. He is subject to corporal discipline (depending on his age) and is continuously told what he will and will not be doing with his life. When his pursuit of happiness conflicts with his mother’s agenda, she regularly violates it … as has every parent since the dawn of reproduction.

In jail, a convict is not so much incompetent (although it may be so) as immoral. He is more incapacitated than shepherded, depending on the goals of the particular prison system. Like an infant, however, he is told what to eat, when to sleep, and with whom to associate. He may not be subject to corporal punishment, but restraint and harsher flavors of confinement are certainly common possibilities for misbehavior. Again, his ideals about the pursuit of happiness are never paramount and are violated on almost every level.

So this prepares us for an important question about both of these most intrusively-governed municipalities: would either of them function better with less oversight? Although there may be particular ways in which a specific jail or nursery’s governance might need tinkering, the general premise that both demand highly regulated environments is undeniable.

But since it has become fashionable for libertarians and (sadly) conservatives to say that reducing the size of government is always a good to be sought in itself, I thought it might be useful to see whether this is so. And as these two rather extreme cases clearly demonstrate, shrinking the scope or intrusiveness of government must at best be a contextual goal, not a universal principle.

When the level of government is reduced in a prison, you anticipate riots and/or escapes. When it’s reduced in a nursery, we call it parental negligence. That’s because the correct size and shape of government depends essentially on the character of the people being governed. Ten-year-olds get less government than toddlers and minor felons get less than murderers. But the advocates of “smaller government always, everywhere” seem to not grasp this rather basic political fact.

They are fond of saying that government is at best a necessary evil, with most of the emphasis on the evil and barely any on the necessity. But as someone who appreciates roads, police, clean water and competent doctors, I think government is often a tremendous force for good. If a citizen stopped others from polluting or practicing fraudulent medicine, we wouldn’t call him a necessary evil. We’d call him a hero. So when government does what would be heroic if individuals did it, at least some of the time we should applaud it.

But still, how big should government be?

It’s a silly question.

Two better questions must be asked instead. First, what sort of society do we want to live in? Second, how good at creating it on their own are the people who live here?

The “government-is-bad” folks don’t usually like either of these questions. They seem to think that a nation can exist without a collective notion of what it means to be a good or bad society. Usually, they will mouth some cliché about how freedom is the only meaningful political good. But this is absurd. Freedom is a means to an end, not an end in itself. More freedom in the hands of virtuous people is a source of great good. But that same freedom in the hands of stupid or evil people (as in the nursery or the jail) only leads to chaos, a very bad thing.

The faith that people left to their own devices will magically and consistently manufacture a vibrant, stable society is pure mythology. Our country was founded by much more practical men who so deeply distrusted human nature that they built our government around the assumption of human depravity by carefully dividing power. But they all came from states that were wildly intrusive by modern standards because they knew that order and prosperity are not the spontaneous result of mere maximized freedom. As they knew, limited government presupposes good people.

So, before you bother discussing what size government is best, you must first consider what sort of society you’re trying to construct. This will help you know in what direction that government’s policies should aim and also frame how to answer the second question: what caliber of people are being governed?

If they are very competent and moral (in producing the sort of society we collectively agree is desirable), then they need very little regulation. To the degree and in the areas they are either incompetent or immoral, government must be made larger to combat the problems arising from their deficiencies. Where the people are good, government can be small. Where the people are bad, it must be large. And, sadly, the average virtue of the society can be easily pulled down by only a few bad actors.

This is why when teenagers misbehave, most cities institute curfews, despite the fact that the percentage of miscreant teens is actually fairly low. Nevertheless, a few ruin it for all by inviting such restrictions. The “government is evil” theory would have you believe that merely rescinding the curfew would fix everything because more liberty is always its proposed solution. But that alone would do nothing to address the underlying cause of the problems: irresponsible youth.

It’s true, there are some social arrangements in which almost no government (or truly none) is necessary. These always involve small groups of morally decent adults with similar values (families, friends, churches and social organizations, for instance). But any large society with varying degrees of virtue and differing concepts of the good life will require much more external limitation. Simply reducing those restrictions for the sake of reducing them is as foolish as granting more liberty in a nursery or a prison. (Expanding them for the sake of expanding them is also quite foolish, by the way.) But carefully reducing government in areas where people are relatively good and carefully expanding it in areas where they are not is the wise way to constantly adjust the government to fit the people being governed and to maximize the societal ideals we want to see realized. It’s what every good parent and every competent warden already knows.

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