big barriers to small government

Recently, I’ve argued that most people aren’t serious about small government and that limited government rhetoric is more about self-image than policy. In this post, I’d like to expand on the sociology of small government theory. I’ll argue that small government faces some massive obstacles:

  1. People like big government: Not in the Soviet/Mao sense of big government, but in the sense of extensive regulation of industry, social welfare, and large armed forces. The Third Way is here and people love it.
  2. The Hayek Fallacy: Welfare states do not lead to serfdom. Yes, I’m relying on a straw man. Hayek did not literally mean that a $.01 tax on gas would lead to gas chambers. But I am making a broader point about political economy. I feel pretty darn free and I live in a welfare state.
  3. The robustness of markets: Even though excessive regulation can suppress markets, life seems to go on. Even in eras when there seems to be great regulation of certain industries, these industries have not collapsed, they merely slowed. In other words, there’s a lot of wiggle room between “no regulation” and “obviously too much regulation” and citizens are pretty happy with a lot places in between.
  4. Adaptation: As the state evolves and grows, people strongly identify with it and defend it. They learn to love it. To take an extreme example, I am always surprised to see that about a third of Russians still support Stalin. To take more mundane examples, we can find people who strongly identify with nearly any state policies. And these aren’t people who directly benefit. A lot of non-teachers will defend public schools from nearly any reform, while there are others who defend every military action as a symbol of national greatness.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll explain these arguments in more detail.

Written by fabiorojas

December 1, 2010 at 12:16 am

10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. You should put “Hayek” in scare-quotes, since he explicitly endorsed a substantial welfare state in “The Road to Serfdom”. What he was arguing against was central planning, in vogue during the 30s and war years. Using Robert Higg’s distinction from Crisis and Leviathan*, he was arguing against “Big Government” but not “big government”.

    *Higgs wasn’t making the exact same distinction, but close enough.



    December 1, 2010 at 2:18 am

  2. i guess this would be a sociological/political science version of Dean Baker’s “Conservative Nanny State”



    December 1, 2010 at 2:27 am

  3. Fabio–I’m really looking forward to the series of posts on the state, but I have one minor (friendly) amendment. Retrenchment advocates wouldn’t, all things equal, prefer less of a state. Such rhetoric is merely underspecified. The neoliberal state (but you know, insert any better, more specific concept here) isn’t quantitatively smaller, as we all know, it’s qualitatively different. So to say that there are barriers to “limiting” government action is correct, but the ability of neoliberals to convert (Kathleen Thelen’s term) state institutions has been somewhat more robust.



    December 1, 2010 at 5:07 am

  4. I would prefer less of a state. But I’m out on the fringe.



    December 1, 2010 at 7:16 am

  5. So we’re getting to the “Reagan at the Berlin Wall” moment? Let me be the first: Mr. Rojas, tear down that link to Marginal Revolution.



    December 1, 2010 at 7:45 pm

  6. Vincent Ostrom (Ostrom & Allen, The Political Theory of a Compound Republic, 2008, p. 150) repeats the warning De Tocqueville gave in his conclusions to Democracy in America. De Tocqueville asked: ‘What sort of despotism democratic nations have to fear’? He concluded that it was a new form of despotism over a people that are democratic, individualistic and wedded to equality, one that did not have a name yet, but one that may be worth describing at length:
    ‘Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood…. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances – what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living… It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate… The will of men is not shattered, but softened, bent and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly retrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better that a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd’ (De Tocqueville, 1889, pp. 290-291).


    Aidan Walsh

    December 2, 2010 at 12:16 pm

  7. “I am always surprised to see that about a third of Russians still support Stalin.”

    Why? Many people are supportive of leaders who use any means to achieve goals they sympathize with.



    December 2, 2010 at 12:56 pm

  8. I am looking forward to your forthcoming posts. The status quo bias, public opinion, “liberals,” and “conservatives” ALL are, implicitly, less in favor of “smaller government.”
    In fact, I am firm believer that citizens aren’t getting NEARLY the size of government that their preferences reveal.

    Brian P.



    December 2, 2010 at 2:11 pm

  9. We hardly live in a welfare state (not sure whether Indiana is somehow an exception to this). As Wacquant terms it, we live in a charitable state as opposed to the real welfare states of Europe (which have begun to scale back). No longer is there anything like the dole here which people can live on without end. However, to consider the examples of Eastern KY and West Virginia might be to rethink whether welfare doesn’t in fact lead towards serfdom.



    December 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm

  10. […] 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 […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: