By John David Lewis, Ph. D
Amid the political bickering in Washington today, one sure-fire way to condemn any proposal is to call it a plan for “bigger” government. Barack Obama is a “big government” president, chant many Republicans, who then whitewash the unprecedented growth in spending for social programs under George W. Bush. But this tactic is not limited to Republicans; in 1996 even President Clinton said that “the era of big government is over,” as he tried to assume the mantle of a “smaller government” leader.
Such political posturing flies in the face of the enormous growth of government spending—and interference in the lives of American citizens —that both parties have supported for a century. Neither political party has a right to claim that it has defended America’s founding vision of a limited government, or has opposed the juggernaut of increased spending in any principled way.
If we are to regain the vision of limited government upheld by the American Founders—and to challenge the growth of the welfare state today—we need a principled understanding of what a proper government should be. The distinction between "big" and "small" government is of little help. There are some things that a proper government must do in a "big" way, such as defend Americans from military attack, uphold property rights and protect every citizen’s freedom of speech, but other things that a government should not do at all, because no amount is too "little."
To take one example: Any law that told Americans what church they may belong to, or any government program that punished Americans for belonging to a particular church, would be thoroughly wrong on principle, regardless of the size of that program or the scope of the law. To argue for or against such a proposal because of its size implies that such a law would be acceptable, if it could be done at a lower cost.
Such an argument would subvert the entire principle of freedom of religion and would plant the seeds for unlimited control of religion by the government. That is why the Bill of Rights states that "Congress shall make no law..." in this regard; it does not say that some laws are OK.
But this is how our elected officials approach such issues today. From business regulations to socialized medicine; from environmental taxes on factories to government-imposed school curricula; from zoning requirements for homes to federal audits, politicians and pundits alike argue today almost exclusively in terms of the amount of economic consequences, not on the principle of individual rights. Almost no one today questions whether the government should have any authority at all in such issues.
This is why, despite the rancorous arguments coming out of Washington, every compromise increases the force levied against American citizens and brings new attacks on their freedom. The government has become an enormous instrument of power unleashed against its own citizens. While the two parties argue about the degree of force they are unleashing, the overall trend toward national bankruptcy, and a full-blown dictatorship, continues unopposed.
The principle needed to reverse this anti-freedom trend is not one of "big" vs. "small" government. The principle needed is Individual Rights—the only guide to what constitutes a proper government and the only means to understand whether any particular law is proper.
The American Declaration of Independence elevated Individual Rights into the central defining principle of American government. By defining these inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the defense of every American’s freedom to think, to act and to prosper became the very purpose of the American government. "To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men" was how the Founders saw the issue.
These rights did not guarantee any person the goods produced by another—they rather set every individual free of such redistribution. Such rights guaranteed that each person was free to pursue his own life and his own happiness. He could not demand that others provide him with food, clothing, shelter, medical care or any other need. To protect his freedom to act was the only job of the government.
Individual rights was the principle by which government powers were defined in the American Constitution. Each branch of government was limited to specific powers—and each branch was to be checked and balanced by the other branches—in order to allow the government to act as a defender of rights. Meanwhile, each branch was prevented from assuming powers not granted to it. When Americans of later generations confronted some of the errors in the original founding documents—such as slavery and women’s suffrage—they called on the principle of rights to guide them toward freedom for all.
A reader searches in vain for any passage in the Constitution that allows the government to redistribute the property of its citizens, as has become the norm in today’s welfare state. On the contrary, Individual Rights allow us to understand that such redistributions are deeply contrary to America’s founding ideals and deeply destructive of American life.
Given this understanding of which powers properly belong to the American government, and which are entirely off limits, we may now consider specific proposals in a principled way. Rather than weighing estimates of cost, trying to buy off one party at the expense of another, and basing criticisms in terms of "big" or "small" government, we may ask: Does a proposal protect the liberty of individual Americans, or does it attack that liberty?
What of nationalized health care? All such proposals in one form or another empower the federal government to redistribute the efforts and the wealth of some Americans in service to others. The Constitution provides no basis for any such powers—not to any degree or in any amount. There is no "right" amount of such powers, and no basis for opposing one bill because it is "big" while accepting another because it is "small." To accept any amount of such coercion will create a precedent that can only grow in scope over time.
So it is with economic regulations, from antitrust laws to the income tax. When originally proposed, all such measures were far smaller than those looming over us today, and no proposal of today’s size would have passed. But, by accepting a "small" amount of such coercion, the foothold was created for today’s massive government programs, which have grown without limit because no principle of liberty stands against them.
The same holds for matters of intellectual freedom—such as the rights to free speech, the press, and to religion. Any attempt by the government to regulate these matters, even in a "small" way, will necessarily grow until every area of life is subject to the dictates of our officials.
Now we may return to President Clinton’s full statement about "big government," and understand what a deep betrayal of individual rights it was: "The era of big government is over, but we can’t go back to a time when our citizens were just left to fend for themselves."
But to fend for oneself—through independent thought, production, and trade with others, under the rule of law—is exactly the meaning of Individual Rights. If American citizens are not free to act for the achievement of their own prosperity and happiness—including the right to help others voluntarily, should both parties wish, and including the right to fail if they make a mistake—then there will be no limits to what government officials may do, should they think that some citizen somewhere is in need.
If this freedom is not defended everywhere, then the power of such a government, and its violations of the rights of its citizens, will necessarily grow. Such a government will create huge bureaucracies to enforce its dictates, simultaneously abdicating its responsibilities to protect its citizens’ rights. As it expands its improper functions, so its defense of individual rights will wither and die.
To challenge this unmistakable trend, Americans need to stop arguing about the size of government programs, and to ask whether these programs are proper in any size. "Big" and "small" will not help us to distinguish between right and wrong. To do that, we must understand the principle of Individual Rights—and we must defend it against all opponents, of any size.