In some circles, the phrase “big government” is very much like swearing. It is spoken with contempt and hatred as we consider the possible outcomes that a powerful, overarching government can be capable of. As we look back through history, we can see the real world examples of how big government can wreak havoc and destruction and genocide on scales never seen before them. The fear garnered by this simple phrase is reasonable and a healthy push back against it is something liberty-minded citizens should always be ready for.
However, as I stated in a recent article, sometimes the way we’d like things to be simply can’t work the way we’d like them to work. One of the most interesting things I’ve heard anyone say in recent history was during the interview linked in the previous article where Michael Knowles stated that he’s not a Libertarian because he doesn’t believe in small government; he believes in limited government. The distinction hit me quite hard and confirmed some minor shifts in perception I’ve been having the last few years that has me moving away from the black and white view I had of politics not so long ago.
As he so clearly put it, you can’t really have a small government in a nation of more than 300 million people. There’s just no way to make that work. With so many people having so many differing ideas about how things should work, the only way to have any form of cohesion as a country is to have certain standards that we live by. This means that we come together on a core set of ideals that we imbue into our society, which is then followed by a long list of compromises we make to coexist peacefully within that particular sphere.
Of the things that make us American are a fear and hatred of anyone who finds it acceptable to force or coerce others into actions designed to benefit those in power. The American Revolution was fought specifically to free ourselves from the control of a tyrannical dictator who believed it was his right to profit off the backs of those who came to a brave new world looking to find their own path. The spirit of America is one of adventure, self-reliance and maximum liberty.
As we’ve grown into a more mature nation, we’ve had to pull back on some of that independence we once held as the highest ideal. The limit to which one person or small group can reach is found quite rapidly, and further progress requires more and more collaboration between larger and larger groups to get anything done. A simple look at the various space programs around the world prove this beyond doubt. For us to continue progressing into the future will require ever expanding teamwork between groups of people with differing points of view.
Though we understand that it is through the collaboration and pooling of resources that we advance our society and species as a whole, there is a massive difference between the size of a government and the philosophy by which it is run. This is where we break down the difference between “big” government and “limited” government. It doesn’t sound like much of a change, but in reality the difference is night and day.
A big government can be quite tyrannical, especially to the minority groups included within it. When a government decides that it knows best and should force people to comply with the way it operates, the people live in fear and exploitation is experienced across most spectrums of the system. The people at the top get nearly all the benefits while everyone below them suffers horribly to provide the lifestyle enjoyed by those in charge. Even if the control is more broadly based, as conservatives fear a powerful progressive party would be, there is still one group that is forcing another to bend to its will.
Of course, a small government has a much smaller chance of making this work, which is why many advocate for reducing government to the smallest possible level before hitting the category of anarchy. The problem with this is that this leads to the fracturing of society because it is the national framework of collaboration and pride that has made America into the greatest nation that has ever existed. We were tempered by the fires of war and came together as brothers and sisters under a single banner.
Big government doesn’t have to be a dirty word. What we should be afraid of is pervasive government; a system where the people who are supposed to be working for the people are actually maneuvering for themselves. This is where we move into the concept of “limited” government. It is the idea that regardless of the size and scope of the organizations we put in charge of making the machine run smoothly, no one individual or group can ever acquire enough power to make anything meaningful happen on their own. It requires collaboration with everyone.
One of the things we fear as citizens is the idea that we will experience a crackdown and invasion of privacy by our law enforcement and other agencies. While it is reasonable to fear this in our private lives, perhaps the best way to enforce limits on our own government is to implement these same concepts we fear being used on us to the people who are placed in charge of our government. I used to believe that overly aggressive investigators were a bad thing, but the ugly truth is that it is only when people are digging into the back room deals that we can figure out what’s really going on.
The difference between a big, pervasive government and a big, limited government is simply a reversal of roles. Instead of a small group of elites digging into the lives of the citizenry, we switch it around and start digging hard into the lives of the elites. If they want that level of money and power, then the cost that comes with it is having their every move and motive exposed. This is the definition of limited government, because when every step of every official is being watched and scrutinized with no room to hide in the shadows, it becomes nearly impossible for nefarious plots against the people to grow. It’s pulling the weeds before they become choking vines.
We live in a crazy time right now, most of which is being caused by groups of people maneuvering their way into positions of power through fear and manipulation. This can only work as long as the average person remains uninformed and unable to group together to defend against the vipers. Once we realize that we outnumber these groups many times over, it becomes easier to be brave and stand up to these ridiculous vocal minorities who only care about themselves. It simply takes enough people taking those first steps to get the ball rolling. Will that be you?