Small government

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
God, guns, and freedom
U.S. Politics
Icon politics USA.svg
Starting arguments over Thanksgiving dinner
Persons of interest
We conservatives believe that the government is bad, and we have got the candidates to prove it.
—P.J. O'Rourke

Small Government™ (pronounced "govmint," "gubmint," or "gummint") is, according to some conservatives and libertarians, the ideal form of government as set forth by the Founding Fathers. It has become a Teabagger mantra over the past few years. Scholars have yet to come to a consensus as to the exact meaning of Small Government™ or if it means anything at all.

However, 100% of people named Grover Norquist agree that Small Government™ is most simply defined as fuck you got mine All That is Good and Holy.

Just what in the world is Small Government?[edit]

The founders' intent[edit]

Proponents of Small Government™ claim that we must return to the ideals of the Founding Fathers™ and the US Constitution and that the founders' intent can clearly be discerned by reading the plain text of the Constitution. Apparently, the founders all agreed that there was only one true way to govern: low taxes and no regulations. After all, Thomas Jefferson wrote "That government is best which governs least." (Except he didn't.)

Of course, even a simple grade-school knowledge of history should put to rest the notion that the Founding Fathers were some kind of unitary hive mind that agreed on everything (some even liked central banking, censoring the press, and buying Louisiana). Further, if they wanted a government too small to even collect its own taxes, they would have kept the Articles of Confederation instead of throwing it out to create a stronger government in the Constitution.

While the role of the government was, in general, much smaller before the 20th century, there are many examples of not-very-small-government programs that the government initiated during this period. For example, land grants that encouraged homesteading and railroad construction in the American West, the construction of canals in key waterways, instituting the beginnings of the modern public school system, modern sanitation and sewer systems, forcing sailors to purchase health insurance, levying the first federal income taxes, and, of course, freeing the slaves. The era of Small Government™ is, shall we say, romanticized mythology. Many conservatives selectively begin their criticism of Big Government in the 20th century — especially the Franklin Roosevelt and Republican (!) Dwight D. Eisenhower administrations — in which the government set out minimum food safety standards, established Social Security and Medicare, mandated a minimum wage, guaranteed the right of workers to unionize, instituted the 40-hour workweek, banned child labor, built the Interstate Highway System,Wikipedia instituted high taxes on the rich, and created the thing you're using to read these words. (For extra Teabagger irony value, the participants of the real Tea Party were actually protesting a tax cut.)


Okay, so what in hell does Small Government™ mean then if not what the Founders intended? Another definition is given by Grover Norquist: Bringing government spending down to 8.5% of GDP.[1] Why? Because that's what it was at the turn of the 20th century, obviously. Norquist's number is transparently arbitrary and innumerate. Say the economy went through a massive boom, bringing spending below 8% of GDP. Norquist's plan would then have us increase spending!

So, what is the paragon of a successful Libertarian country? Is the pat Libertarian answer "there hasn't been one yet"? Tell 'em what they've won, Johnny![2][3]

No other country spends 8.5% of its GDP per annum in the world. However, according to Norquist's standards, Afghanistan looks like a hot spot to move to considering it spends about 9% of its GDP. Denmark, though, is probably some Soviet rathole since it spends at close to 60% of its GDP.[4]

The night watchman[edit]

At least minarchist libertarians have the (limited) decency to give us a clear-cut definition of Small Government,™ but they often prefer to call it the "night watchman state," which Robert Nozick expounded on in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. This is simply a skeletal form of government where only negative rights are protected by keeping only coercive acts of violence or theft illegal. The government would largely be composed of just police, judiciary, and prison system in order to enforce the law and a military to provide for national defense. This minarchist view is common within the libertarian movement, being espoused by writers such as Ayn Rand. However, it doesn't really square with the views of the politicians who both use the term and are mainstream enough to appear on TV like Sarah Palin.

Recipe for Liberty[edit]

That's the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don't work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.
Noam Chomsky



The Preamble of the Constitution begins with “We the People...” so literalists (and most other folks) read that as meaning that the people are the government (at least those people who participate). So in order to implement Small Government,™ you need to reduce the number of people who participate.

Up until the about middle of the 20th century, that was accomplished by restricting suffrage to wealthy, male landowners 21 or older. But women, Black people, poor people, and some teenagers got the vote, so the Small Government™ supporters had to figure out another way to reduce the number of voters (reduce the size of government). So they did things like: passed Jim Crow laws, enacted voter ID laws, disenfranchised felons, purged voter rolls, created long lines at the polls, and other tactics to reduce the size of government as much as possible. Sound familiar?

Temporarily embarrassed millionaires[edit]

It's actually a brilliant defense mechanism to cope with the cognitive dissonance of voting against one's own interests. The GOP does things that hurt my prosperity. Oh, well, it's because I'm playing the long game: I'll eventually be rich enough to benefit from these votes/policies. Oh, I haven't gotten rich yet? It's not my fault — it's those "socialist" pantywaists in Washington (and all the moochers who support them) who are preventing the free market from operating like it should.[5][6]

Ironically, it's pretty much the same in Russia.[7] "I support Putin. Putin does things that hurt my prosperity, but in the long run, he moves in his mysterious ways to make Russia great, or at least make the rest of the world suck even more than Russia. If that hasn't happened, it's because I didn't support him hard enough or haven't suffered enough under his policies."

Fight The Power[edit]

Hippies like to talk about how they are always being kept down by The Man, maaaaaaan. Similarly, Small Government™ proponents like to talk about "getting gummint off our backs" and "getting gummint out of the way," implying that if only Big Government™ could be done away with, it would leave space for good ol' American Ingenuity™ and The Protestant Work Ethic™ to lead us into a new golden age of American prosperity. Figuring out how this would be accomplished is left as an exercise for the reader. For this reason, a fringe group of Small Government™ theorists believe that Big Government™ and The Man™ may in fact be the same thing, leading them to conclude that many conservatives are in fact deep cover hippies.


See the main article on this topic: Reaganism

The case of Ronald Reagan is one that still troubles many scholars in the Small Government™ field. Reagan was a Small Government™ conservative, yet he exploded the federal debt, bailed out Social Security, expanded defense programs, and expanded the War on Drugs. Scholars have yet to work out the Reagan paradox and it remains yet another puzzle to be solved by enterprising sociologists.

People forget that government jobs (classified by the conservatives as so-called "bureaucrats") are actually good, solid middle-class jobs. When you talk about government cut backs, you're cutting road construction, you're cutting NASA, you're cutting healthcare, you're cutting scientific investigation. All of these are in record decline since 2009 and there is no way for the private sector to pick up the slack. So you have worse roads with more pot holes, bigger class sizes in schools, fewer engineers working on space exploration, longer waits at public health clinics, longer waits at the DMV, and so forth. This is why Reaganomics doesn't work.

It's whatever Big Government isn't![edit]

Expert political scientists have hypothesized that Small Government™ is simply whatever isn't Big Government.™ Using the Teabaggers as a representative sample of Small Government™ proponents, we find that things not considered to be Big Government™ include:

In fairness to the libertarians (excepting the Neal Boortz/Instapundit types), they have been consistently against these policies, as government is the handiwork of Satan.

Some research suggests that Big Government™ is actually socialism in disguise… or something. Friedrich von Hayek asserted in The Road to Serfdom that even the slightest dose of Big Government™ would prove deadly, leading us down the slippery slope to an inevitable communo-fascist autocracy. Not shockingly, most citizens of first world nations don't believe that they are living under totalitarian regimes. However, others think that they are just stupid sheeple.

What is generally understood to be the case by many scholars in the political field, though, is that there is a Manichean division between two types of government: Small and Big, with the former being good and the latter being bad. All political issues can be reduced to this dichotomy.

The Nanny State[edit]

The Nanny State™ is Big Government™ with added nag. British MP Iain Macleod allegedly discovered the existence of the Nanny State™ in 1965.[9]

What does a nanny do? Most likely, she keeps you from eating sweets before dinner, looking at naughty magazines, or staying up past your bedtime! Hillary Clinton, for example, is a Big Government™ Democrat who thinks the government needs to keep all that nasty sex out of our children's violent video games.[10] Orrin Hatch, on the other hand, is a Small Government™ Republican who thinks "obscenity" should be illegal, which is not "nanny" in any way, not at all.[11] Seeing Janet Jackson's exposed breast on live TV made Small Government™ Republican Heather Wilson very, very angry.[12]

Wingnuts claim the very existence of welfare undermines The American Dream by creating a populace of dependent welfare queens, as the government will be your "nanny" from cradle to grave.[13] These benefit scroungers simply aren't doing their work: Milking the government out of the maximum amount of cash. Maybe they ought to quit their jobs and get some Matthew Lesko books! And Eisenhower expanding welfare in the 1950s? Never happened!

Conservative Nanny State?[edit]

Macroeconomist Dean BakerWikipedia argues in his self-published book Conservative Nanny State that conservatives actually support policy that is Big Government™ and anti-free market. He asserts that conservative stances on tort "reform," patent and bankruptcy laws, and interest rate policy creates a conservative Nanny State™ that is intended to benefit (yet another big) Big Business™ and the wealthy. Many claim this to be impossible.[14]

Particularly when Republicans control all the levers of power in state government (executive, legislative and judicial), one begins to see the effects of coercive state government on local governments. Examples include Ron DeSantis' Florida (censorship,[15] book banning,[16] removal of Democratic prosecutors, forcing ideologues into public colleges such as New College of Florida[17]) and Greg Abbott's Texas (preempting all local laws, ending local control of elections).[18]

Americans don't like it big[edit]

Many European citizens snobs claim that Americans like everything obnoxiously Big: Big Cars, Big Macs, Big Tracts of Land, Big Hollywood, etc. This is patently false. Every good American hates something Big. Moonbats hate Big Pharma™ and Big Oil.™ Wingnuts hate Big Government™ and Big Science.™ Real America™ is all about small-town values, small businesses, and giving the little guy his chance (but not Wal-Mart). Small is good, really! We don't know where all this Big stuff came from. It was like this when we found it, honest.

Big Society (Brits do like it big)[edit]

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has helped to reinvent the concept of Small Government™ in the minds of the British people through his Big Society™ program.[19] The Sunday Times remarked that it was "an impressive attempt to reframe the role of government and unleash entrepreneurial spirit."[20] (Just ignore the stalled GDP growth!)

Through this campaign, Cameron demonstrated his advanced knowledge of Small Government™ by repackaging it for the British public. Because the Brits are evil socialists, they love Big things, especially government. Thus, they simply cannot understand the benefits of Small Government™ (this is likely due to socialist indoctrination at state schools). Because all government is simply a sliding scale between Small and Big Government,™ cuts in government programs aren't just making government smaller, they're making everything else bigger! Hence, the Big Society.™

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. 15 Questions with Grover G. Norquist, The Harvard Crimson
  2. Lind, Michael, [ "The question libertarians just can’t answer", Salon (Tuesday, Jun 4, 2013 09:17 AM PST).
  3. Ebeling, Richard M., "The Gold Standard and monetary Freedom", 3.29.11. Ebeling: "The United States and, indeed, virtually the entire world operate under a regime of monetary socialism." REDSREDSREDSREDSREDSREDS!!!!!!
  4. Government Spending as % of GDP
  5. Weigel, David, "Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaires", Slate 9.21.11.
  6. Younge, Gary, "Working class voters: why America's poor are willing to vote Republican", The Guardian 10.29.12.
  7. Muir, Hugh, "What Links Putin and US Republicans? Their Opponents Look Elitist", The Guardian 1.20.13.
  8. Tea Party activists have put a fresh new spin on the status of these entitlement programs as public, claiming that they, in fact, have nothing to do with government at all!
  9. "We Must Break Free From the Bully State"
  10. Senator Clinton, Burned by Hot Coffee, Proposes Grand Theft of Free Speech, EFF
  11. "Enforce federal laws on obscenity"
  12. Heather Wilson "Nipplegate" testimony
  13. While there will be "free riders" in any system, fraud is actually not rampant in US welfare programs, many welfare recipients also hold down full-time jobs, and don't spend their entire lives on welfare. (Eight Welfare Myths, Anita Freeman)
  14. Conservative Nanny State by Dean Baker (2006) ISBN 1411693957.
  15. How state policies that censor race and gender discussions in classrooms maintain economic inequality: Florida has adopted particularly dangerous laws to limit academic freedom Adewale A. Maye & Jennifer Sherer (June 28, 2023 at 2:12 pm) Economic Policy Institute.
  16. Florida now leads the country in book bans, new PEN report says. How did that happen? by Amanda Geduld (September 22, 2023 12:04 PM) Miami Herald.
  17. Anatomy of a political takeover at Florida public college (10:06 PM PST, March 29, 2023) Associated Press.
  18. Antagonisms flare as red states try to dictate how blue cities are run by Molly Hennessy-Fiske (November 27, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EST) The Washington Post.
  19. Not to be confused with the Great Society
  20. "The big society"