A few quick words on limited government
[W]henever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
-Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence
The American Declaration of Independence is a magnificent document "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" as Abraham Lincoln put it four score and seven years later. In 1776, Jefferson was talking about revolution and making the intellectual case for America’s separation from Great Britain, by force if necessary. But the case for revolution is the exception, not the norm. The question we should ask ourselves is how we can follow that same Libertarian ethos when revolution is not warranted or desired.
My answer has been predicated on the concept that government has coercive power no other entities in society have. For me, what this means is that government can be a force of benevolence or malevolence, depending upon the mood of the people and who controls the reins of power. When looking at government, it is its effectiveness that counts.
Nevertheless, human nature is such that coercive power can be intoxicating. Left unchecked this power will almost certainly be used only for the benefit of those wielding it and their allies. That is why the U.S. government was established with natural checks and balances via a bicameral representative legislature, an executive and a judicial branch which all shared powers.
I would go further and say that government must always be held in check – even in times of economic distress. If not, a self-perpetuating bureaucracy develops, with a cadre of individuals dependent on government and wedded to institutions or to the coercive power that government allows individuals to exert through their public function. That’s my idea of limited government.
I expressed it this way in 2008:
Because government must tax to maintain its existence and this tax will redistribute monies from some agents to others, what are our priorities as a people as to how that redistribution should take place? Who should we tax, by what means and by how much? And who should receive the benefits of those taxes and for what purposes? These are questions actually worthy of debate and are fundamental to democracy.
My answer is fairly simplistic: how we tax and how we spend government money depends on the economic, political and military situation, on the wisdom of our leaders and on the priorities of the people. There is no ideological answer to this question. One problem I have with the small government crowd is the ideological view that the answer must always be the same regardless of the circumstances we face. I certainly believe very much in limited government. I think most people would label me a Libertarian or a fiscal conservative. However, I am not ideological. I am pragmatic and I believe public policy must adjust to the specific requirements of the time.
Here is the thing though. There are lots of examples of government abusing its coercive power in the U.S. Corporatism is one main focal point for me.
Corporatism has nothing to do with liberty. It is all about power and coercion. It’s about favouring the big guy over the little guy, the more well-connected over the less well-connected, the insider over the outsider. And in society that means favouring large, incumbent businesses over smaller businesses, new entrants or individuals
But Corporatism is but one example of how the idea of limiting government’s power has been lost. Here are a few others:
- On Fed Secrecy: Fed must reveal recipients of credit crisis bailouts from 2008
- On Body Scans: Ron Paul: The American People Have Been Too Submissive
- On Tracking Money: US Government now tracking gross proceeds on gold sales over $600
- On Tracking Immigrants: Immigration bill may require biometric data of all workers, including teenagers
- On Supressing Information: Government coercion in the financial blogosphere
- On Search and Seizure: Blogging and the tyranny of government
I wasn’t alive in the 1950s or the 1910s, so I can’t say how different the social environment is today than in the days of the Red Scare or the days of the Sedition and Espionage Acts. But what is clear to me is that there has been a marked shift over at least the past thirty years toward both greater executive power within government and greater corporate power entrenched by government. And since 9/11, government surveillance and control has increased drastically.
I am not comfortable with this. And when I go back to the Jefferson piece and my original question about how to be true to its ethos in a period of relative tranquillity, I see limiting government as the best option. So I wrote yesterday, for example that "I still want government’s role to be limited. And I certainly don’t want the outsized amount of real resources devoted to healthcare in the U.S. to continue." That’s an example of the conclusions I come to.
Some act as if you can pick and choose where government power should be checked. Sure, we can have government dominate monetary policy but it shouldn’t have intrusive social controls. In my view it is consistent to take the sweep of government action across social, economic and military activities and apply the same firm checks on its power. I do not want government conducting full body scans of me against my will so that I can feel safe from terrorism. I do not want government to be able to enter my house and seize my laptop or my person without a warrant or habeas corpus. I do not want government to be able to conduct warrantless wiretaps. I also do not want the President to be able to engage in military actions in Libya without a declaration of war and consent from Congress. Nor do I want the government tracking all business transactions above $600. That’s why I believe most of any stimulus, when applied, should be done so via automatic stabilizers. And it also why I don’t want the Fed controlling interest rates as it does.
The question is what this means about the size and scope of government. I don’t get the feeling, for example, that people are less free in Germany, where government spending is a large percentage of the economy. In addition, I don’t get the sense that corporatism is any more of a problem there than in the U.S. So I couldn’t make an a priori assumption that the allocation of resources in the German economy is worse than it is in the US economy. I do feel an overall sense of regulation, control and restriction when I am in Germany – the social pressure not to cross the street against a red light; the state control over which children’s names are legally permissible; the licensing that one must go through in order to be a member of certain professions, etc, etc. These kinds of restrictions give me a sense of unchecked government power. So, overall, however, my inclination is to limit the size and scope of government for the very reasons I expressed here. That’s not everyone’s philosophical predisposition. But it is mine.