On Smaller Government
By A.D. Freudenheim  

5 October 2003

In politics, there may be only one thing worse than watching the other side expropriate your ideas and use them to their own advantage – and that’s seeing your own side fail to expropriate someone else’s ideas when they could be used to such good effect for your own purposes. Right now, this is the nightmare of the Democrats, with most left-wing politicians and political groups having failed to seize the momentum from their conservative opponents over the last three years. I am not just talking about the Democrats’ pathetic handling of the Iraq war or their ineffectiveness in protecting our civil rights against unpatriotic, privacy-infringing initiatives like the USA Patriot Act. The biggest issue is the gaping hole where the term “small government” is concerned.

Strictly speaking, governments are inefficient and expensive, often accomplishing poorly what could otherwise be done well by private organizations or citizens groups. Smaller, more efficient government is something we should all want, regardless of political affiliation; it is in our best interest to have government tackle those things it can and should handle effectively, and to stay out of the areas that are best left to the people themselves. Moreover, all governments – federal, state, and local – tend to grow for growth’s sake. Alas, as regulatory issues unfurl and problems arise, Americans of all stripes and affiliations have consistently turned to government intervention to benefit their particular cause. We are a nation that loves government, even when we say we don’t.


Despite the irony of our sometimes-tentative relationship with government, there is a polarizing divide in American politics over the issue of “smaller government.” It is a long and historic chasm, marred by false terminologies and even more nefarious motivations. Phase one of this divide probably begins with the Civil War and the call for “states’ rights” by the secessionist south; the south lost the war, but they won political turf on the issue of the role of the federal government. Since then, this (faux) anti-federalism has consistently helped conservatives win elections.

Phase two of this divide began when Republican Herbert Hoover’s “laissez-faire” attitude towards government intervention in the financial markets helped spur the downturn that quickly became the Great Depression. It was not until Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt’s massive spending program (combined with World War II) that the US economy turned around and pulled out of its slump. And if there is a phase three to this history of the growth of government, it is undoubtedly the combined efforts of Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s passage of the Civil Rights Act and the massively expensive (mixed-results) effort known as Great Society, which represented two modern nadirs of federal intervention and growth.


In his recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Tax-Cut Con,” economist Paul Krugman points out that Americans have a great advantage over other “advanced” countries because of the significantly lower taxes we all pay. Krugman also tackles the lunacy of the “starve-the-beasters,” the people and politicians who want to cut taxes in order to forcibly reduce the size and scope of government because, well, they hate government. But the “why” in why they hate government is never really tackled, as Krugman (sort of) acknowledges.[1]

The goal of the “starve-the-beast” types, Krugman suggests, is to get rid of the social programs put in place by Roosevelt and Johnson (among others), namely Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Yet this is so counterproductive as to be absurd. As Krugman notes, the removal of some of these “safety net” programs would create tremendous levels of poverty and misery, particularly among the elderly.[2] This seems unsustainable, even for the rich; after all, the rich rely on the poor and middle-class for their labor and their efforts – but what incentives will the poor and middle-class have if they can see no long-term benefits?

It seems to me that while conservatives and Republicans continue to harp about “smaller government,” they do not really mean it. For them, the language represents less the actual reduction of government roles writ large in the way that a libertarian might see it, than a re-allocation of resources away from social spending and towards military spending, along with a handful of governmental “reductions,” mostly in the form of tax cuts and loosened regulations on business. Few (if any) of the Republicans who use this language talk about how a smaller government would offer its citizens more freedom and flexibility in their daily lives. They can’t. They are too busy pushing for new social restrictions – like a ban on late-term abortions, and new laws that encroach on our privacy – to worry about actually permitting the citizenry to do what we’d like.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have shied away from the language of “smaller government” – much to their overall loss. Perhaps they fear retribution at the polls from the natural constituency they have in those bureaucrats employed by various government agencies. Or maybe they fear that saying negative things about inefficient, expensive, and poorly-run government programs like Medicare will drive away the constituencies that depend on these programs. (Look at the beating the Democratic candidate Howard Dean is taking from his fellow candidates for having rightly called Medicare a “disaster”.) What matters is that the fear of tackling the issue of government inefficiency allows left-wing candidates to be painted with the “tax-and-spend” brush, the one that makes it look like all the Democrats want is to find governmental solutions to every societal problem, even when this is (in some cases) patently untrue.


I decided to ask a few other people for their opinions on this issue – so I posed three questions to a range of friends with differing political perspectives:
1) What does the phrase “smaller government” mean to you?
2) Is “smaller government” something we should strive for?
3) Based on your answers to the above, what are you willing to pay – as a percentage of your household income – to support the kind of government you think we should have.

The answers surprised me, even knowing how the friends I asked tend to think about this issue.

To the first question, the majority of the responses followed two lines of thinking: “smaller government” means either a reduction in (personal income) taxes or a reduction in regulation, whether viewed positively (less interference in personal life) or negatively (reduction in government services like education, reducing government action against corporate lawbreakers). As one friend said, the issue is about the “size of the footprint” that government leaves on their daily life. Only two people came out and said “‘smaller government’ is not what we should be seeking; we should be striving for ‘efficient government,’ and the two terms are not synonymous. People need government.” Another friend suggested something similar, saying that smaller government is one that stays away from “fringe issues.” Only one response pegged “smaller government” as a “Republican ‘catch-phrase,” and suggested that a smaller government cannot take care of its people. And the one person who suggested that my question was about federal versus local government issues said that in their view, local control is often “elitist, exclusionary and racist.”

On question 2 – should we strive for smaller government – the responses were split almost evenly. Some friends said yes, we should strive for smaller government, but connected this back to their own definitions of the issue (particularly efficiency issues). Several said no, that doing so would cut back crucial services that many Americans need. One response noted that we need to focus on “accountability” before worrying about this issue, presumably because the government isn’t even doing adequately that which it should be (protecting us from threats and maintaining our core infrastructure), so reducing government will not, by itself, solve any problems.

The answers to question 3 were the most surprising. By and large, almost everyone said that as their income increases, they’d be willing to pay a greater share of taxes – and particularly if they felt like they knew where their tax dollars were going and why. As for numbers, some people said they would be willing to pay upwards of 35, 40, and even 50% of their household income for government services, although what those services should be - “homeland security” versus education or social welfare programs – varied from person to person. All of the friends who responded are well educated and thoughtful, and perhaps unlikely to fall prey to the deceptions Krugman suggests have been perpetrated by the Bush administration in making its case for tax cuts – but this still strikes me as a remarkable statement about how they perceive their responsibility as citizens contributing to American democracy.[3]


As my friends all acknowledged in various ways, the government has a role to play in our lives, whether it’s federal, state, or local. There are things that we ordinary citizens cannot do effectively for ourselves without a government’s organizing efforts. Providing for the common defense, one of the mainstay functions of the US federal government, is an obvious example: individually, or even in small groups, we would be highly ineffective at this task; we might be able to defend little fiefdoms – as with the warlords in Afghanistan, for instance – but we would be screwed when it comes to protecting the nation as a whole. Likewise, imagine a city where each block’s residents were responsible for maintaining the physical quality of the street itself: walking or driving from one place to the next would be a nightmare, with poorer neighborhoods likely having poorer roads – a result that would only perpetuate the cycle of poverty, as businesses stayed away from inaccessible areas and residents with means sought to leave. In this case, local governments provide an invaluable service by maintaining core facilities like roads, that benefit all of us in (hopefully) equal ways.

There are, though, a number of services our government provides that are questionable – not in terms of their pure value, but in terms of the value we get for our money and in how those services are constructed, managed, and paid for. The three big social programs in place in the US are the best example: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are all “necessary” programs, helping to ensure minimum quality of life standards for our citizens. But these programs are funded based only on our current ability to pay for them, and as others have noted,[4] our ability to pay for them changes as our economy shifts, populations age, and tax revenues change. In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s Social Security program was brilliant politics – it made it appear that every working citizen had a savings account for the future, just as many people’s savings and investments had been wiped out by bank failures and collapsing markets. Long term, however, that does not mean that this program was the most effective or efficient construction, or that the process by which it is sustained – and through which it pays out its dividends – should not be changed. Social Security needs to evolve to meet the needs of a country that is exceptionally different from the one that existed seventy years ago.

Cynically, then, this is a problem in two parts: one part rhetoric, and one part action. Yet the two are linked. During two terms of Bill Clinton, the GOP sat and watched the then-president take on some of the sacred cows of the Democratic party – like welfare, through welfare reform – and do so with Democratic support, even as Democrats before him had been afraid to touch the issue. Today, the Democrats need to find a way to take the language and ideas of “smaller government” and exploit it, and then use the power they achieve to push through the kinds of changes needed to make our social safety programs sustainable, which they currently are not.

It probably goes without saying that what the Republicans would have done for “welfare reform” would have been markedly different than what the Clinton administration accomplished. But that is the point: even if you don’t agree with what he did, Clinton’s tactical brilliance was in the mix of the accomplishments and the ideas and (linguistic) mechanisms used to achieve them. It is why Howard Dean is the lead Democrat in the race for president: because he understands how to tap this exasperation with government inefficiency and unnecessary pieties. And it is why the entrenched politicians like John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, who have clenched their jaws and bitten their tongues through so many of the damaging deeds of the Bush administration, are trailing behind. As well they should be.

***Thanks to all the friends who responded to my questions and gave me feedback on the subject writ large!

[1] “The Tax-Cut-Con,” by Paul Krugman, The New York Times Magazine, 14 September 2003
[2] In fact, this is already happening: The Economist reports, in its 4 October issue, that the US Census Bureau’s new statistics show that an additional 1.7 million Americans have dropped below the poverty line, a total of 12.1% of the population.
[3] Clearly, I share the sentiment on the value of taxes and tax cuts. See my columns American Delirium and Charitable Choice, among others.
[4] In addition to Krugman, see The Economist’s recent report on pensions in Europe, examining the aging population and the effects of population changes on the revenue needed to sustain European versions of Social Security. “Special Report – State pensions in Europe,” The Economist, 27 September 2003.
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