people love big government
A few weeks ago, I began a series of posts on the subject of small government rhetoric. My main point is that most people who push for small government don’t really mean it. In this post, I’d like to elaborate on an another point. Small government policy faces some big obstacles. The first and foremost is that people love government. And they love big government.
I don’t think this is particularly shocking. A few facts:
- Most people have government programs that they love a lot. Conservatives love the police and the military. Liberals love social services. The difference between liberals and conservatives is not that one is for more government and the other wants less government. They just want government to do different things.
- There are some big programs that most people support, like Medicare.
- A consistent finding of polls is that people who favor cutting government rarely favor cutting specific programs like Social Security.
- It is remarkably hard to cut government, even in America. Only recessions can dent state budgets, and then only temporarily.
- People may slam government in the abstract, but they love specific people a lot. You know the old joke, “Congress is a bunch of thieves, but my representative is great!”
- Surveys show that few people are hard core libertarians, who favor cutting both defense and social programs. In other words, lots use libertarian rhetoric but not many people actually support libertarian policies (privatizing old age benefits, drastically reducing defense).
One puzzle that remains is the persistence of small government rhetoric. What gives? My analysis is cynical. I think a lot of politics is group status politics in disguise. Small government rhetoric is convenient. It’s an easy justification to attack resource transfers to unpopular groups. For example, Tea Party conservatives oppose the bailout, a hand out to corporations. But few have called for systematically cutting back the Federal Reserve or the Treasury. Another case: immigration. They believe that immigrants are unjustly sucking up jobs and tax dollars. So cut the services that they use. The small government position is more palatable than saying “I hate banks” or “I hate Mexicans.”
So what’s a serious small government proponent to do? First, proponents of limited government should make it clear that they aren’t conservatives, Tea Party people, liberals or whatever. Second, focus on issues of high relative impact. For example, liberals and conservatives have pretty much failed on some important issues like the drug war, stopping needless war, and developing a humane immigration policy. These are all policy domains that lead to bigger, and unneeded, government. They are policy areas where you won’t be swamped by other interest groups. Third, counter-signal. If you really believe that small government is good for everyone, why not work for some low status people? Fighting for estate tax repeal or lower capital gains may have some abstract policy merit (or not), but I’m sure it won’t persuade people to really adopt your position. Instead, why not pick a fight that shows you favor freedom for everyone and not just people in your tax bracket?