A Brief Exposition of Limited Government

I have fairly simple reasons for pushing for a more limited Federal government, and it has nothing to do with Libertarian ideology and everything to do with patriotism, as in, not risking dangerous stresses on something I’d rather see continue to exist.

There are two extremes of government – too little (anarchy) and too much.  Generally speaking, both extremes are bad news, but I think there’s only one we have to worry about avoiding in the U.S.  Mission creep is a thing, but mission shrinkage isn’t.  Obviously, some organizations do occasionally shrink, but it usually seems to be the result of a competing organization enforcing a downsizing.  I’d say mission creep is partly the result of individuals expanding their own personal power, but sadly for simple solutions, it’s also because many people who just happen to be in positions of authority feel an entirely justifiable need to solve problems.  Either way, the effect is the same, which is why it’s worth asking what theoretical end-points there are for a ‘sufficiently large’ government.

The first option is a Utopia.  The government is large enough and effective enough to guarantee optimal resource distribution and solve social problems to the extent they are solvable.  I don’t think I need to dwell on this, given the imperfection of the people from which societies and governments are constructed.

The second option is Uniformity – there are imperfect trade-offs, but society widely accepts those trade-offs.  I’m quite fond of Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” for stripping practical considerations away, leaving an ideal type of an ‘accepted tradeoff’ society, but here in the real world, the practical considerations are the problem.

The issue is that the United States, like most great powers, is a quite large country – even with today’s mechanized industry, population and land count for something.  A general consequence of size is diversity, which means (by definition) disagreements and (by human nature) tension.  Indeed, this is such a major feature of this country that many consider diversity to be a national principle.  There are ways to enforce uniformity despite underlying diversity, but most tend to be questionable in desirability and long term success rate – common historical examples include a ubiquitous theocratic (as defined in the link: governance of morality) police state, dominance of a single descent group that can supersede ideology (i.e., apartheid), a major external threat (unlikely while the U.S. remains the only superpower), or some creepy combination thereof.

The European social democracies that Bernie Sanders is presently popularizing tend to be of the accepted trade-offs type, enabled by relatively small populations and minimal ethnic or economic diversity.  Racism in Europe is not always obvious, often due to the lack of available targets, but when visible tends to make the American South look positively welcoming to other races.

The third and final alternative is Collapse, and is the fastest way to get to anarchy (funny how often two opposites end up being directly connected).  Different sides each attempt to make each new incremental expansion of government scope come down on their side, leading to increasing tension between the various victories of incompatible ideologies – which might sound familiar to anyone following the mish-mash of gun control laws, abortion regulations, the tax code, etc.

Even more critical than the bureaucratic tension is the expansion of blame.  When something bad happens, people look for a scapegoat.  ‘Acts of God’ must perforce be taken philosophically, but as the FEMA scandal after Katrina demonstrates, once people are involved God isn’t the one getting blamed.  This isn’t a problem when it’s occasional failures, scandals, and accidents of bad planning, but remember ‘diversity’ – with differences of opinion, even an organization working with perfect efficiency can still anger people, and I’ve noticed any two people disagree on something.  Consequently, a ‘sufficiently large’ government is angering everyone, somehow, which becomes a significant societal stress as people fixate on the losses more than the gains.  The tensions will eventually, if unchecked, tear the government apart.

In summary, Utopia is impossible and Uniformity impractical.  The last remaining end-point of increasing government scope in this country is Collapse, and I’d very much like to avoid that.  The solution is for our political culture has to give up on total victories.  This country is big enough to handle welfare states, theocracies, and all manner of diversities of ideology – as long as none of them are implemented universally, as long as people who are angry at any of those have the option of escaping elsewhere without needing to give up on the country as a whole.  It won’t be pretty for anyone who cares on any side, letting states turn into religious crazy-towns or communist hell-holes (depending on your point of view, and noting that, like the current usage of such phrases, the rhetoric will be an exaggeration), but at some point the line must be drawn.  I can’t say how close (or far) we are from an actual collapse, but the ridiculously low approval ratings for Congress (around 11% right now) and the endlessly recurring ideologically driven deadlocks suggest the optimal placement of the line lies somewhere behind us.

This is not about getting rid of the Federal Government – the country needs an over-arching structure to stay a country.  This is not about ‘getting the government (writ large) out of X’, it’s about getting the Federal government out of X so more people can be simultaneously satisfied by the presence or absence of the service.  It’s about living and let live, because in the long term that’s the only way a diverse nation can work.

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