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?


Written by fabiorojas

January 17, 2011 at 6:44 am

18 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jason Jensen. Jason Jensen said: people love big government: A few weeks ago, I began a series of posts on the subject of small government rhetor… […]


  2. Um, what? Fabio, have you read your buddy Bryan’s _Myth of the Rational Voter_? All your bullet points seem to be saying is that people see explicit benefits and costs and systematically ignore opportunity costs. You know, Bastiat’s broken window and all that. Your next point is that people who point this out are really shills for some special interest. So, in your analysis, the burden of proof is on these small-government types to proves a negative, that they aren’t jerks?

    An alternative strategy for small-government types is to shift the burden of proof to large-government types, who are equally likely to be promoting private interests. I eagerly await your reflections on large-government rhetoric and the ways its promoters can show that they aren’t power-grabbing nannies and control freaks.


    Peter Klein

    January 17, 2011 at 3:04 pm

  3. “All your bullet points seem to be saying is that people see explicit benefits and costs and systematically ignore opportunity costs. You know, Bastiat’s broken window and all that.”
    Great Point! The problem, however, is that large-scale public opinion polls do not ascertain what respondents are willing to “forego” for their government services.


    Brian A. Pitt

    January 17, 2011 at 5:34 pm

  4. @Peter:

    Actually, yes, Peter, I have come to the belief that *many* people who say the words “small government” are really shills for special interests. That’s not all people, of course. Hard core libertarians who favor cutting back state spending in a wide range of areas I don’t think are shills. If you favor cut backs that include your own group, then I don’t think your are a shill.

    My argument is about the average voter and many conservatives. For example, how can one be against big government yet favor every single war ever? How can one be against big government and then favor the mass deportation of millions of Mexican migrants? Or the drug war? I think the solution to the puzzle is simply that “small government” is not to be taken literally. It’s simply a signal for group status politics.

    And, of course Peter, I don’t claim any originality for my bullet points. These public attitudes are well known to any one who knows about public opinion. And the hidden costs thing is not original either, not by a long shot.

    Finally, you say: “the burden of proof is on these small-government types to proves a negative, that they aren’t jerks? ”

    If you consistently push for small government, I don’t think that there’s any need to prove the negative. However, that doesn’t describe most people who spout “small government” outside a Cato seminar. As surveys (and casual reading) show, small government policies don’t follow small government rhetoric. In that case, yes, I’d want some evidence that you aren’t shilling for your special interest group.



    January 17, 2011 at 6:58 pm

  5. Fabio, points taken. I hadn’t read your previous posts about small-government rhetoric and didn’t realize you were referring to “occasional, opportunistic small-government remarks by people who are really big-government types” (Reagan being the modern prototype). I guess that I, as a genuine small-government person, don’t see the small-government rhetoric all around me as you do. Conservatives occasionally offer platitudes about “getting the government off our backs,” just as liberals talk about “getting the government out of our bedrooms.” Neither group has any consistent views on the optimal size and scope of government, of course.


    Peter Klein

    January 17, 2011 at 8:05 pm

  6. Fabio,
    I think that, though you’re correct that small government policy faces large obstacles, changing the underlying operating principles of state institutions to reflect market values and even to de-legitimize the actions of certain state institutions (as the work of those like Steve Teles, Jacob Hacker, and others–see esp. Mahoney and Thelen’s recent edited volume) is less difficult. Often, as this scholarship often confirms, the state does not recede at the hands of conservatives. Instead, it gets repurposed for alternative goals, some of which are self-destructive.

    Jeff Henig’s work on education is also helpful on this point. Think about No Child Left Behind: a giant state program that, in many ways, is designed to highlight the failures of public education and to open the pathway for greater market intervention. So though conservatives often claim they want a “smaller state”, they (arguably must) often deploy a large state in the service of neo-liberal ends.



    January 17, 2011 at 10:24 pm

  7. […] people love big government […]


  8. WWWWD: What would Walter Williams Do?



    January 18, 2011 at 2:37 pm

  9. I have a bit of definitional concerns.

    So in this context does small government = limited government as well? It has always been troubling to me the shifting definitions of both big and small government. This rhetorical trick has confused the argument quite a bit.

    Moreover it seems that not only is there a confusion of what size is, but what government is as well. The issue of “governmental functions undertaken for the public purpose” by supposedly private corporations similarly plays this definitional game. Simply is government the formal structure or is it defined by the function of the actor?


    William Love

    January 18, 2011 at 3:06 pm

  10. The average environmentalist, or pacifist, or member of most political groups also have inconsistent positions because as Peter Klein points out, the average voter doesn’t have a very sophisticated understanding of politics, economics, law, and society. The average politician may or may not be ignorant, but their rhetoric can’t be sophisticated.


    Michael Bishop

    January 18, 2011 at 3:56 pm

  11. It is worth noting that rhetoric doesn’t line up with behavior. But I don’t think this line of reasoning should be used to discredit political positions. Rather, we should evaluate political positions based on the best arguments in their favor.


    Michael Bishop

    January 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm

  12. Thank you Michael – well stated. You obviously are farther down the caffeine curve than I this morning; I was hesitating to state that sentiment.

    Yet, I disagree (amicably) a bit about the sophistication of the rhetoric of politicians. Simplifying an explanation of a concept is not the same as not expressing a sophisticated concept. Baby steps may be needed but they can get you to the same place just as nuanced at the large step, and I would argue that in fact greater rhetorical sophistication may be needed with simpler concepts since more things can go wrong in the explanation. Why? Precision, clear logic, and good metaphors are in greater need when dealing with people who have no preconceptions. This is the reason tone and word choice can have such a powerful effect for instance see William Harrison Riker’s work.


    William Love

    January 18, 2011 at 4:20 pm

  13. William Love

    January 18, 2011 at 4:25 pm

  14. I’m happening upon this small government discussion late; however, there seem a couple points absent from consideration.

    First, it looks like you are assuming that the effectiveness between local v. federal dollars is equal. But, aren’t programs at more local levels more accountable, more able to adapt, more able to monitor recipients, etc.?

    Secondly, small government can be especially beneficial because people have the ability to enter and exit from the area. By voting with their feet there is better feedback for small government compared to federal government.

    Also, there are additional explanations to why some government programs seem to grow expansively — not necessarily because people love them. Concentrated benefits and diffuse costs.



    January 20, 2011 at 12:12 am

  15. I have never met anyone who really wanted small government. They only wanted to reduce the spending of the opposing affiliation while maintaining high spending within their own affiliation.

    I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who preach smaller government, yet still want to continue the war on drugs.

    Government has been large for a long time. The tea party has only given the left more ammunition to label them racist.

    I’m not saying everyone in the tea party is racist. However, of all the times in history they chose to ‘reorganize’, they chose the one-time a non-white man was in office.



    January 27, 2011 at 10:23 am

  16. Hi Mark,

    Some things

    (1) Put that card back into the deck. I am not saying that you are racist, however it seems like the viewpoint that you present may imply it due to its assumptions.(See the definition of racism a good analysis is at )

    (2) The statement “They only wanted to reduce the spending of the opposing affiliation while maintaining high spending within their own affiliation” is vague and very dependent on who you think are “Us” and “Them”. While it seems you like to cut things along racial lines usually people who like “small” government believe that it is the people of the United States (us) rather than the Government (them) whose direct interests should be served in government. This should help you understand why the Rule of Law is important since it presumes that the law should be the same for everyone.

    (3) Small Government implies a government with limited powers and accountability to the American public for their actions and spending. Limited government is not the same as no government.

    The assertion of “Government has been large for a long time.” (and thus it is ok or the better way to do things) is foolish. People have been raping, stealing, murdering, and lying for a longer time and I doubt that most people think that this would be a good thing. Do you?

    (4) Who really cares if Obama is black? (Ahem actually Obama is bi-racial with a Kenyan dad and mom from Kansas). However lets assume he is. If you are going to go THAT route, I think that you should be reminded that racism has nothing to do with the skin tone of the racist rather it has to do with the attitudes of that person. (note the attitude of black slave owners )

    I think it would be better to question if the beliefs, practices, and institutions negatively discriminate against people based on their perceived or ascribed race. It is possible not to like someone because of who they are, what they do, or what ideas they have rather than what race they are – Take Omar Hassan al-Bashir both a proponent of big government and ascribed as “black” however I would doubt that anyone would really want him as their president because of his views on genocide (genocide = yes). Would that be racist?

    (5) If you really think some one is racist – educate them. Show them that the stereotypes that they think are true don’t fit you. Show them you are their friend. In short avoid be Martin Luther King, or Lincoln.

    But that is just me, a person who really likes small, limited, accountable government and thinks that the American public shouldn’t wait on the government to be innovative or be friends with people of different races.

    Nice to meet you Mark



    January 27, 2011 at 4:21 pm

  17. Er that should be “In short avoid hate be Martin Luther King, or Lincoln.”



    January 27, 2011 at 4:22 pm

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