Throwing a Wet Blanket on Campaign Promises

Bottom Line Up Front: Government programs can help improve life “on the margins”, but the potential harm they can cause is immense. This belief leads me to support limited government that protects liberty, markets, and provides those necessary goods that cannot be provided by markets or charity and to oppose programs that would increase the size and scope of government bureaucracies.

Limited Government as a Defense against Tyranny

I do not trust the government. I buy into Hobbes’ argument that we can’t live well without it, but the idea of a Leviathan scares me. And for good reason. Given modern technology, it does not take a huge bureaucracy or special police force to make the turn from benevolent to totalitarian regime. All it takes is rulers with a “moral vision” and enough support to use the government to put it into place. It is too easy to see the Communist and Nazi regimes as an aberration, but the only difference between major progressive reforms and totalitarian rule is whether you 1) agree with the moral vision being implemented and 2) think that the short term costs of implementing it are worth the long term gains. The Communist and Nazi experiences were terrible, and I don’t want to see things like that happen again.

So that this post does not go deep into philosophy (I just deleted an incredibly dull explanation of the differences between Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau), let me give an example.

We are currently at war; our enemies are seeking out exploitable vulnerabilities. To protect us, the government tries to identify these enemies while they are still planning their attacks. They could do this better if we gave them a bigger bureaucracy/more resources and a broader domain of investigation. While I agree with the aim of this policy (finding enemies and stopping their attacks) and that the “short term costs” are worth (and would actually provide) the gains in security, I would still be wary of anything but the most restricted and temporary gains for the security apparatus. Why? Because I don’t trust the government’s definition of an “enemy” in the long run. This looks like a “conservative” example, but I would say the same about “hate crime” legislation – I simply do not trust the government to handle this kind of nuance in the long run.

The “good idea fairy” comes out pretty strong every four years, waving its wand all over the place. Candidates try to figure out what people want or need, then describe how they would address those needs were they to win elections. I think this encourages selfishness and is a pretty poor way to encourage responsible citizenship, but political competition is pretty good at helping to identify problems . But even when I agree with the problems as stated by the candidates (e.g. who doesn’t think everyone should have access to affordable health care without preying upon hospital emergency rooms, or that our immigration system is a sham?), it still takes a lot to convince me to support new policies that either increase the scope/domain of government involvement or increase the size/resources of government bureaucracies. FWIW, both parties have a very mixed record on this and promise more of the same.

Our Founding Fathers were right: limited government should be a guiding principle and constraint on action.

For a future post: limited government as a way to protect our seed corn

When government tries to solve big problems with expensive solutions, it runs the risk of both botching it and destroying our social and economic “feed corn”. Even improvements “at the margins” require the creation and support of inefficient bureaucracies.

For another future post: elections as a guard against tyranny

Elections may not solve our problems (and might even encourage consumerism rather than citizenship), but they can protect us against tyranny.