Too Big, Or Not Too Big? That Is the Question (and Has Been for Centuries)

As I wrote a few days ago, I believe that there are certain “high ideals” which nearly all Americans share, regardless of their political affiliation. The Framers of the Constitution called these ideals the “Blessings of Liberty”.

Today we proceed to one of the most basic ways in which people disagree over how best to “secure” these blessings.  What is the role of government in securing them? Is this a passive or an active sort of security? In other words, does the government exist primarily to protect liberties that citizens already have, or to provide them for us? There may not be hard and fast line dividing the two.

Typically, when we talk about the size of the government, this is what we are talking about. At the risk of oversimplification, a “big” government takes a more active role in the daily lives of citizens, seeking to provide for them the best possible quality of life. A “small” government puts more responsibility on individual citizens to provide for themselves, and is limited to activities (such as national defense, uniform laws, and fixing a “Standard of Weights and Measures”) meant to ensure that citizens are as free as possible to pursue their own best interests.

The debate between large and small is certainly nothing new. This was the struggle between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists before the ratification of our Constitution. The Federalists wanted a strong central government (though I doubt any of them envisioned anything like the monstrosity we have today), and believed that the vast powers enumerated to the three branches of government in the Constitution were “the necessary means of attaining a necessary end”, as James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 41.

The Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, believed that the Constitution did not sufficiently restrain the government. They warned that a strong central government would grow unchecked, infringing on individual liberties. The lack of a Bill of Rights topped their concerns. They also feared that the wording of the Constitution (particularly the clause under Article I, Section 8 that granted Congress the power to make all laws deemed “necessary and proper”) would allow elected officials to justify nearly anything in the name of “promoting the general welfare“.

While history shows us that the Anti-Federalists were right about a great many things, it was ultimately the Federalists who won the day. After a compromise led to the addition of a Bill of Rights (our first ten amendments), the Constitution was ratified, and the great American Experiment began anew. While there have always been Libertarian holdouts emphasizing small government and personal liberty, our nation’s central government has had a trajectory of growth since the beginning.

Recently, however, there has been a resurgence of small government advocacy in response to the exponential growth of our government in the last three decades. The so-called “Tea Party” has brought the debate back to the forefront, but today, just as with the Anti-Federalists, the small government message lacks organization, consistency, and a rallying figure. (Which is consistent with a Libertarian streak of decentralization; centralization lends itself to organization.) Small government advocates are people without a party.

As we have seen since the 2010 elections, the Republican Party has tried to market itself as the best political fit for Tea Party voters. Many people today consider the GOP as the party of small government. In today’s political culture, it is true that the Republican platform is smaller than the Democratic platform, but that’s sort of like saying that Saturn is smaller than Jupiter. Relatively speaking, one is smaller, but both are gigantic balls of gas.

This shouldn’t come as a shock. The Republican Party has always been a “big government” party. It was our nation’s first Republican President who freed the slaves through an Executive Order. This is, by the way, one argument in favor of government as an instrument for imposing morality. Once we decide that this was the right way to try to end American slavery (contrast this with the approach of William Wilberforce in England), though, we must also be aware that this is the exact same reasoning that drives Republican voters to seek a unilateral solution for making abortion illegal, and that our current President has given for the many executive orders he has issued. We can’t say that, on the one hand, this power in the President’s hand is good (as long as he is imposing our morality), while on the other hand it’s bad (when he is imposing something else). Doing so leaves us with no standard for morality other than popular opinion. It’s the “tyranny of the majority” that the Founders of our country (both Federalists and Anti-Federalists) were trying to avoid.

I’m not saying the slaves shouldn’t have been freed, of course, but this does provide an example of what I was talking about when I said that these were hard issues. Could there have been a “small government” solution that could have led to the end of slavery? Would it have led to better circumstances for Freedmen than the 100+ years of segregation, discrimination, and racial violence that followed emancipation (in both the North & South)? Would the 13th Amendment have been possible without Civil War? These questions are all rhetorical at this point, but worth asking in light of our country’s most pressing current moral crisis. They are the same sort of questions that we must ask if we ever hope to see the end of abortion.

Allow me to share a quote from Pastor Voddie Baucham, who perhaps frames this debate more simply than I have:

“The Federal Government must be held within the confines of its enumerated powers. This is important for Christians because we will not always have people in the White House with whom we agree (in fact, politicians will always let us down). What happens when we send a man to the White House with the express purpose of “changing the moral standards” of America in our favor, then, down the line we have a president who uses the same un-checked powers to promote moral standards with which we disagree? How’s that workin’ for ya?”

In the specific context of abortion, he continues:

“If there are issues we wish to address on a federal level, we have a federal remedy, and it is not the election of a President; it is the amendment process. This is less favorable to those who do not wish to do the hard work of changing hearts and minds in the marketplace of ideas [again, think Wilberforce]. However, the alternative is a quasi-monarchy (or oligarchy) that changes with the wind, and a view of the presidency that is both unbiblical and unconstitutional.” [comment mine]

While there are certainly some policy differences between our current president and most of this year’s crop of GOP presidential candidates, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum all agree in principle with Barack Obama (and every U.S. President in my lifetime… and then some) in one very significant way. All of them believe in a large government approach. All of them believe that the three branches of our government should work together to advance a political/moral agenda. The politics and the agendas are different, but the philosophy is the same.

A vote for any of these candidates is a vote for the status quo. I agree with Pastor Baucham that this philosophy is not working. Unfortunately, most people in our country – even those who say they want to reduce the size of our government – plan to vote for a candidate that will continue America’s trajectory of growing government and shrinking liberty.

Ron Paul is the only candidate who truly advocates a smaller government, and has the voting record to prove it. While he is by no means a perfect candidate, and I do not agree with him on every point, I do believe that a smaller, fundamentally different approach to government is the only hope of reversing our country’s descent into oblivion. This is why I cannot and will not vote for a large government candidate from either party.

8 comments on “Too Big, Or Not Too Big? That Is the Question (and Has Been for Centuries)

  1. BrianTN says:

    John, what a fresh breath of air this article is! I couldn’t have said it better myself. Keep writing brother. What I frequently run into are folks who are seeking a ‘conservative’ presidential candidate, but they don’t even look at the most important aspect of someone’s political career which is ‘voting record’. That is probably THE sole reason I support Congressman Ron Paul because, even though I may not agree with him on every single point, it is obvious he is a man that lives out his faith in Jesus Christ. Even though he does at times talk about his faith in the role of governing, he doesn’t just prop up socially conservative issues to the foreground all the time merely to get votes or draw the evangelicals. He is the only evangelical candidate, but does not allow that to become THE issue. What Paul does is lift up our constitution which is “the light” that shined so bright as a rule of governing and the constitution states that we were given our rights by God and not the government. When he takes his oath of office, you can rest assured he will defend the constitution and he will defend the rights of American citizens!

  2. […] the last week I’ve written about what I see as the purpose of Government, and why I favor a small government. Today, I’ll state the case for why I am a Capitalist, and why the study of economics is so […]

  3. […] trying to open a lemonade stand, he set off to demonstrate the consequences of liberty-destroying big government ideology. Some powerful (and startling) stuff here. Hopefully it will open some eyes. Watching it is […]

  4. […] does not favor a federal abortion ban. It is commonly claimed (even by those who supposedly favor small government) that the states could not adequately restrain abortion; only a national solution will […]

  5. […] second is longer, but is a GREAT explanation of how big government (i.e. both the Democratic and Republican parties) needs war, and why we need a noninterventionist […]

  6. […] reason that the political establishment rejects it (and misrepresents it to the rest of us). The big-government spending philosophies of both parties require a constant stream of revenue flowing into the military-industrial complex. There exists the […]

  7. […] He is the only true small government candidate. […]

  8. […] yet read in favor of voting for Romney despite my many objections to his positions on the role and size of government, the economy, foreign policy, etc. Phillips is brash and condescending, but the points he makes are […]

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