Henry David Thoreau opened his pamphlet “Civil Disobedience” with a quote he attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “That government is best which governs least.”
Although there’s no record of Jefferson actually saying or writing those words, they were adopted by generations of conservatives as a motto to succinctly explain our view about the limited roles and responsibilities of government.
That view has been under attack since its very beginning, however, and a recent survey from the Pew Research Center indicates that conservatives have been steadily losing ground.
“As Congress faces an April 28 deadline to fund government operations, the public is now split in their general preferences on the size and scope of government,” wrote the report’s authors. They added, “48% say they would rather have a bigger government providing more services, while 45% prefer a smaller government providing fewer services.”
While this news doesn’t necessarily signal the beginning of the end, it is indeed cause for alarm. Because even though past generations preferred smaller government, they still allowed it to grow well beyond its means. Imagine what will happen now that growth is an actual preference.
Some moderate conservatives have even gone so far as to recommend that we surrender and accept big government as a permanent political fact, then simply offer ourselves as the best people to run the system. But they have forgotten – and many Americans have obviously never known – why conservatives prefer limited government in the first place.
Limited government is more of a process than a principle. It’s not something to be valued for itself, but rather for the things it helps protect and prevent.
Frist, it’s more of a matter of efficacy rather than personal preference. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, and history has taught us repeatedly that big government simply doesn’t work very well.
That’s why we accept the notion of subsidiarity, which means those who are best equipped to handle a situation are often those geographically nearest to it. In other words, when at all possible, the federal government should only do what the states cannot; the states only what communities cannot; communities what families cannot; and families only what the individual cannot. When it runs in the other direction, failure follows.
Second, regardless if you want to spend more money on heathcare or social programs or education, big government is too darn expensive. Even though we’ve been trying to restrain its growth, according to the popular online clock calculating our national debt we’re nearing $20 trillion, or about $165,000 for every tax-paying American. We’ve been spending more than we have for decades, and there’s now no way we can tax or grow out of that hole. We need to start calling it what it really is – our grave.
Third, conservatives prefer limited government because it’s the best method of protecting our freedoms. It stands to reason that for the government to provide a thing, it must control a thing. And if that thing has been long considered, or is even among our many newfound “rights,” then by necessity it loses its status as a right the moment it ceases to be in the hands of the individual and moves onto the ledger of a bureaucrat. It suddenly becomes one of many “benefits” to be regulated or lost altogether.
Finally, limited government best protects the dignity, self-worth, and even happiness of the citizen.
“Happiness depends crucially on the taking trouble over things that matter,” wrote Charles Murray in his book “In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government.”
“There must be some stopping point, some rule by which governments limit what they do for people – not just because of budget constraints, not just because of infringements on freedom (though either of these might be sufficient reason in itself), but because happiness is impossible unless people are left alone to take trouble over important things.”
We rarely value what’s unearned, especially if its doled out by some faraway government bureau. Men must earn, and do, for themselves and their families whenever possible. All other substitutes lead to rot and ruin.
So indeed, there must be a stopping point, as Murray wrote, but with more Americans wanting bigger government, I fear we may have already blown past it.