Old Man On The Street

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March 28, 2010

Limted Government: What Is It ?

Filed under: Government, Limited Gov.: What Is It? — admin @ 7:54 pm

In his reply to President Obama’s Jan. 28 State of The Union address, Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia said the “The circumstances of our time demand that we reconsider and restore the proper, limited role of government at every level.”1 As I listened to him three thoughts/questions occurred to me. The first was that the Governor is, by no means, the only elected official or public figure calling for limited government — it is a major rallying cry for Republicans, Libertarians, Tea Party Patriots and many others. The second was to wonder what exactly the advocates mean by limited government — what is their vision of the right government for today’s United States? My third question was to wonder what the desire for a smaller government might suggest for the future of America.

Before exploring my questions, I want to digress for a moment and pick a bone with Governor McDonnell. During the course of his reply to the President he said that “. . . most Americans do not want to turn over the best medical care system in the world (emphasis mine) to the federal government”. I strongly suggest that the Governor update his judgment of our health system. In 2007 the United States had the highest per capita expenditure for health care in the world — $6,0962. However, we ranked 38th in life expectancy3 and 33rd in infant mortality4 (deaths per 1000 live births). I could go on but these data are enough to indicate the Governor was badly off course when he said the United States has the best medical care system in the world. Some elements are great, but not the system as a whole. I think its time to call elected officials and others to task when they make claims like this that just don’t hold water. Such assertions are irresponsible in that they divert our attention from very real and often vital problems. OK, so much for my thoughts about the behavior of some politicians. Back to a consideration of limited government.

Suspicion of government has been a major theme in American life since pre-revolutionary days. The degree of skepticism has varied over time and in the middle of the last century — the era of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal that includes the depression, World War II and a post-war boom — government was, for the most part, viewed with favor.  Then came the Vietnam war, the civil rights conflicts, the Watergate affair, the Iranian hostage impasse and other events that significantly eroded trust in government. The New Deal philosophy of governance was all but ended in 1981 with the election of Ronald Regan to the presidency. He famously said in his first inaugural address that “In the present crisis government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”5 Depending on who you read, Mr. Regan may or may not have fulfilled the promise implied in this statement, but the principle was, in various ways, verbally embraced by all his predecessors until Mr. Obama took office. Even the Democrat, Bill Clinton, seemed to join the chorus when in his 1996 State of the Union address he said, “We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there’s not a program for every problem.” and that “The era of big government is over.” The call for a smaller government has been prominent ever since Mr. Regan’s election. However, it has, in my view, become much more intense and wide spread since the economy just recently went into serious decline, the government massively intervened in an attempt to head off a depression and since the Democrats have proposed a large scale “fix” to the nation’s health care system. It is this latest version of the call for limited government that I have explored./p>

One of the first things I found when I started my research was that not all small government advocates share the same or even similar views.  For instance, Governor McDonnel who I quoted earlier proposed  “.  . .to increase State funding for Virginia’s Community Health Centers and free clinics” in 2010. I assume he believes that this would be  part of the “. . . proper, limited role of government”.  The Libertarian Party sharply disagrees. Its July 2, 2000 national platform states that  “We advocate a complete separation of medicine from the state. We support an end to government-provided health insurance and health care”6.  It doesn’t take much effort to find that various advocates differ substantially in their understanding of the meaning of  limited government.

In addition to finding that supporters of limited government have different points of view, I found that there are a lot of them.  I went from link to link to link on the Internet and from organization to organization and finally realized that just listing them and summarizing each group’s outlook would fill a good size book.  This is beyond me. Consequently, I have tried to organize and summarize my findings in such a way that I hope does justice to the range and content of the opinions I found. I haven’t done a count, but I feel fairly safe in saying that the greatest number of calls for limiting government are currently coming from Republican politicians as they oppose the proposed health care legislation. If not the most numerous, they are certainly loud and noisy as they charge the Democrats with plunging the nation into socialism as they push for a “big government takeover” of the health care system. In many ways today’s Republicans are repeating the arguments that Ronald Reagan made more than 50 years ago in a speech opposing the passage of the initial Medicare legislation.7 The central theme of Mr. Regan’s talk was that the proposed Medicare legislation would socialize medicine, that the socialization of medicine would lead to the socialization of other aspects of our national life and, finally, to the loss of individual freedom. He concluded his talk by saying that  “ . . . one of these days we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” Given the Republican reiteration of Mr. Regan’s point of view and the growing intensity of their attack on “big government” health care, one might assume that the Party might have e a fully formulated description of what they mean by limited government. As far as I can tell, this is not the case. At its web site the Republican National Committee states that the Party “. . . like our nation’s founders, believes that government must be limited so that if never becomes powerful enough to infringe on the rights of individuals.” However, neither the National Committee or the Party platform goes much beyond this declaration. References to low taxes and opposition to gun control are in the platform but are not emphasized. It is interesting to note that despite their stated opposition to the growth of government, the Party does encourage expanded government regulation of some aspects of individual behavior such as abortion, gay marriage and gambling on the internet while tacitly supporting discrimination against minority groups.

Republicans are the most prominent and, I think, are the most often heard “small government” advocates. However, they do not offer a description of limited government as, we shall see later, other organizations do. The lack of a program has been noted from within the Party. David Frum, a former speech writer for the second President Bush and a prominent conservative spokesman , has said;

“. . .there’s a big difference between being the party of less government and a party of small government. It’s one thing to try to slow down opponents as they try to enact their vision of society into law. It’s a very different thing to have a vision of one’s own.” “. . . the day in which we could look to the GOP have an affirmative small-government vision of its own has, I think, definitively passed.”8

Given their lack of an articulated vision of small government and their staunch opposition to the President’s proposed health care legislation and other ideas, its not a stretch to conclude that much of the Republican talk about limited government is hollow. One might conclude that their apparently empty advocacy for small government serves to disguise their primary purpose — a return to power.  As Senator Jim Demint of South Carolina said when speaking of health care reform “If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”9 I don’t think it unfair to conclude that for many (not all) in the Republican Party their advocacy for limited government is a political device, nothing more. A cynical view no doubt. However, no more cynical than those who oppose health care changes in the name of liberty and freedom when, for thousands, the failure to change means the liberty and freedom to have an early, unnecessary death or to go untreated because they lack health insurance (see my post titled Government and Health Care).

While, in my estimation, many Republicans use the idea of limited government as nothing more than a tool that will help them regain power, there are, I think, conservatives/libertarians who are quite sincere in their beliefs although they, as I mentioned earlier, may differ widely in their points of view. These differences are well worth understanding. While I don’t have sufficient knowledge of the conservative community to confidently identify major currents in their thought, I suspect that one of these currents is summarized in the article “Social Welfare Conservatism”10 by Douglas Besharov.11 In his article he says that “. . . conservatives . . . want to help their fellow citizens, want an end to unnecessary suffering and racial discrimination, want to see greater equality of opportunity — and recognize government’s vital role in advancing these and other social goals.” He also says “No one really knows how much government is too much government”. He then goes on to say that most conservatives  “. . . expect government programs to be less efficient, less effective, difficult to terminate and more likely to have unforeseen  (and possibly harmful) consequences.” than are viable private solutions. He suggests that this view derives from several beliefs:

“. . . conservatives see big government as stifling creativity and enterprise and as a danger to individual liberty — in small ways, if not big ones.”

“ . . . conservatives tend to be wary of all expansions because they fear that every expansion is part of an unchecked upward spiral: the more voters are dependent on it for benefits, subsidies and jobs. This, the thinking goes makes politics even more about the distribution of government benefits which in turn creates pressure for yet higher taxes and yet more government”.

Universal “. . . programs that seek to serve both the middle class and the poor do a poor job of serving the poor. “Conservatives believe that no-strings-attached assistance has often been a catastrophe – creating even more dependency and a fertile ground for social problems.”

“Respect for private choice. . . “ and its consequences as opposed to “. . . the top-down decision-making that characterizes most current programming”

“The plain fact. . .” that “. . . contemporary social welfare efforts are strewn with programmatic failure, unintended consequences and just plain damage to individuals, neighborhoods . . . and even whole cities.”

While Mr. Besharov’s article suggests a strong ideological objection to government, I believe it also reflects what I call a “practical” objection. That is, it seems to me that he thinks that government just can’t cut it — that there is something inherent in government that keeps it from doing a good job. So, my question is — to what degree do these beliefs hold water? I don’t have the resources necessary to look at each of his points. However, I do think something may be learned by looking at the last one — “. . . contemporary . . . efforts are strewn with . . . failure. . . “ I focus on this point because I was an active participant in some federally supported programs12 and had the opportunity to directly observe many others.

In my experience some federal programs failed. Others succeeded. Others achieved partial success. For instance, the War on Poverty was, by in large, a flop and, in some instances may have caused real damage. At the same time the Community Mental Health Centers that were created by Federal legislation have almost eliminated the huge warehouses that we called State Psychiatric Hospitals and have given the severely mentally ill an opportunity to live a better life than might otherwise have been the case. The Centers and Medicaid have helped removed hundreds, if not thousands of poor, demented old people from the dark basements of State Instutions. The Regional Medical Programs helped to improve the treatment of heart disease, cancer and stroke. Community health planning agencies failed to significantly curb the unnecessary creation and duplication of services but in many instances facilitated the development of services in areas of need. In short and in my personal experience, the characterization of federally sponsored social programs as failures simply does not tell the complete story — it provides part of, but by no means all, of the picture. If this is the case, what do we do? Is seems to me that each of Mr. Besharov’s points listed is testable — that each is a kind of hypotheses that may be examined systematically and with rigor. Mr. Besharov might agree to such an examination. In his article he says, “Being conservative includes a commitment to experimentation—even with ideas with which one does not agree—coupled with rigorous and honest evaluation.” Here I really have to take issue. Mr. Besharov and I have been listening to different conservatives. At the same time I think, based on my personal experience and observation, that Mr. Besharov’s arguments have some merit. We could all learn a great deal if we were to invest time and resources into a concerted effort to understand why government programming has worked well, worked moderately well or has failed.

As an advocate for small government Mr. Besharov is, given my research, a moderate. It’s also my sense that there are not a whole lot of conservatives who share his position. Rather, it appears to me that most are much further to the right than he is. At the far end of the continuum is the Libertarian Party. In their 2008 Party Platform13 they say that they “. . . .  challenge the cult of the omnipotent state and defend the rights of the individual” and find that “Governments throughout history have regularly operated on the . . . principle that the State has the right to dispose of the lives of individuals and the fruits of their labor” and that they (the Libertarians) “deny the right of government to do these things . . . “. They also indicate that their assessment applies to the United States as well as other governments. Their 2002 platform14 provides a detailed description of they what they would do if in power. They call for doing away with or privatizing all government functions except for national defense and the adjudication of contract disputes. Among the things they would eliminate or privatize includes public education, the national park system, the postal service, the internal revenue service, scheduling at airports, and government funding of medical research. Unlike the Republicans, they strongly oppose the regulation of the behavior of individuals — abortion, gay marriage and so forth. They are strongly opposed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  A fringe group?  It depends on your definition. One of their former presidential candidates, Ron Paul, won the straw poll for President at the recent national convention of the Conservative Political Action Committee and their web site announces that as on March 15 there are 263 Libertarian candidates for all types of local, state and national offices. While it is hard to tell, it seems to me that some of their ideas have many adherents who are not avowed members of the party — people who agree with what seems to me to be the Party’s basic premise, government of any kind equals coercion and the loss of freedom. If you, for instance, cruise the Tea Party Patriot web site posts, you will encounter many libertarian ideas.

The Libertarian Party advocates for severe limits on the power and scope of government. The Cato Institute, one of the nation’s major “think tanks”, follows closely. In the 670 page, on-line 2009 Cato Handbook For Policy Makers15 the Institute provides an extensive discussion as to why it advocates for limited government and a great number of detailed recommendations as to what it believes should be done about a wide range of issues. If one is really interested in the call for limited government, the Handbook is well worth a close look. As I have said,  the Handbook offers a broad range of recommendations — more than can be reviewed here. However, the substance of these recommendations is more or less what one might expect. For example:

Place term limits on Senators and Congresspersons

Eliminate Licensing for health professionals (Doctors, Nurses, and so on)

Change Medicare payment mechanisms. Provide beneficiaries with vouchers that they would use to buy private plans.

Phase out federal funding of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program and have the States take responsibility.

While the Cato Institute is certainly a very strong advocate for limited government, it seems to me that it is slightly less stringent in its views than the Libertarians. For example, the Libertarians would simply do away with Medicare while the Institute would alter the payment mechanism to the benefit of the private sector and in a way that some believe would, over time, substantially limit the extent of senior’s coverage. Although brief, this review allows me to go back to one of my original questions. What, specifically, do advocates mean when they call for limited government? It depends on who you ask. As I and some of it’s members have said, the Republican Party does not offer a well developed picture of what they mean by limited government — by-in-large their current advocacy is nothing more than a talking point to use in their opposition to the Democratic plan for health care change. There are, however, serious proponents of the idea of small government and these folks vary in their understanding of what small government is. At one end of the continuum are the Libertarians who are just opposed to any but the most minimum of governments and would, if they could, do away with almost every one of its functions. At the other end of the continuum are those who, although not adverse to the idea of government, are extremely dubious about a government’s ability to effectively perform any task. In addition, there are those take a position somewhere between these points of view although it seems to me that most of the “in betweens” noticeably lean toward the libertarian end of the scale.

So, what might a future based on a philosophy of limited government look like? It’s hard to answer this question in any detail without first choosing from among the visions of limited government we have briefly explored. However, I think its possible to draw some general conclusions. Limited government advocates tend to equate government with coercion — they see government as forcibly getting in the way of or unnecessarily restricting the choices and activities of individuals and organizations through rule making and taxation. In short, government constrains freedom and it follows that the more limited our government the greater amount of freedom we have and the better our national life will be.  As the Cato Institute expresses in its Handbook “ . . . if we want more growth, for more people, with wider scope for personal choice and decision making, libertarian policy prescriptions are the roadmap.” It seems to me that at the heart of Libertarian values is the belief in the individual acting alone — for instance, Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” (1942). Ms Rand’s philosophy is, I think, summarized by her statement  “Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.” A similar, more recent expression of limited government values was expressed in Reason Magazine by its editors who made a prediction about the near future. They said;

“We are in fact living at the cusp of what should be called the Libertarian Moment, the dawning not of some fabled, clichéd, and loosey-goosey Age of Aquarius but a time of increasingly hyper-individualized (emphasis mine), hyper-expanded choice (emphasis mine) over every aspect of our lives, from 401(k)s to hot and cold running coffee drinks, from life-saving pharmaceuticals to online dating services. This is now a world where it’s more possible than ever to live your life on your own terms; it’s an early rough draft version of the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s glimmering “utopia of utopias.” Due to exponential advances in technology, broad-based increases in wealth, the ongoing networking of the world via trade and culture, and the decline of both state and private institutions of repression, never before has it been easier for more individuals to chart their own course and steer their lives by the stars as they see the sky. This new century of the individual, which makes the Me Decade look positively communitarian in comparison (emphasis mine), will have far-reaching implications wherever individuals swarm together in commerce, culture, or politics.”16

This predication of an age in which individualism flourishes has a great deal of appeal. It is especially appealing to one who grew up watching John Wayne’s solo charge of the enemy in True Grit, Gunsmoke’s Marshall Dillon in his weekly, solo shoot out and killing of a bad guy, or Gary Cooper’s facing the killers after being deserted by the townsfolk in High Noon. Of course, individual achievement is by no means all fictional. The exploits of Congressional Medal of Honor winners are extraordinary as are the accomplishments of many individual inventors, scientists, artists, business persons and even some politicians. However, in my experience, individual effort is only part of the equation. A brief story in explanation:

Toward the end of the war in Korea I was assigned to a Battery of 90mm guns located north of Seoul.  We were attached to the 1st Marine division that, in the area, had no long range artillery. I was in the Fire Direction Center — we took information provided by observers and translated it into settings for the guns — direction and elevation. We could not actually see our targets that were usually at quite some distance. One day we received what we called a Fire Mission from a spotter plane. Marine recovery vehicles were attempting to retrieve a disabled Tank and were receiving fire from either Chinese mortars or artillery — I don’t remember which. Based on the information provided by the spotter we took the Chinese under fire and suppressed the mortars. I assume the tank was recovered.

Mission completed.  Just another unremarkable, everyday event in a long, bloody and grinding war — no heroism or hyper-individualism.  The mission was completed by a team, by a group of individuals each trained to do a particular job who worked together without, in some instances, ever seeing or even knowing each other. What we did was typical of what soldiers do. We cooperated, supported one another and looked after those in trouble — the essential process in the conduct of a war. Armies do not depend on individual heroics to win. They survive and depend on people working together to accomplish a common purpose. Armies require people to work together — that’s why discipline is such an important part of military life. . At the same time, the fundamental importance of cooperative effort in war does not negate the importance of individual effort. Soldiers must be ready to act on their own as circumstances change — their lives may depend on their capacity to innovate on a moment’s notice. War is a really complex mixture of individuals acting on their own and groups working together in ways that are indifferent to the individual. I submit that this observation applies, in a less dramatic way, in the conduct of our national life. This idea brings me back to the point I made earlier — that individual effort is only part of the national equation. Individual initiatives are very important, in our daily life as in war, but no less and perhaps not as important as are joint efforts to achieve a common purpose. As individuals we live in communities whose functioning is essential to our survival.  Government has the potential to be ineffective, coercive and oppressive and, at the same time, the potential to serve as a means by which we may work together to identify and effectively achieve community purposes. In short, government is what we make of it.

Those who see government as the solution and those who see government as the problem are, when it comes right down to it, taking the easy way out. Making government serve a community purpose and perform well is really hard, complicated work that involves hard, complicated choices. It requires inspired individuals and cooperating groups. It requires a respect for the community, for the individual, for knowledge and for reason. I think Bertrand Russell summed it very well in the Introduction to his “History of Western Philosophy”:

“Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand dissolution or subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes co-operation impossible. The doctrine of liberalism is an attempt to escape from this endless oscillation. The essence of liberalism is an attempt to secure a social order not based on irrational dogma, and insuring stability without involving more restraints than are necessary for the preservation of the community.”(p,xxii)

Not easy to do by any means, especially in a culture dominated by sound-bite communications and, even worse, sound-bite thinking. Not easy in a country where commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are the leading philosophers of a major political party and are, apparently, in a position to punish those within their party who do not conform to their views. Not easy in an environment where the profound personal cynicism expressed by such figures as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich through their proclamations about the creation of Death Panels is given any credence whatever. Not easy, but well worth trying to put in place.


1.  Google on “Bob McDonnell For Governor” and you will find the full text of his speech

2.http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/AO934556.html 3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy 4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_infant_mortality_rate 5. http://www.Reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1981/12081

6. http://www.lp.org/platform

7.To hear Mr. Reagan’s remarks, Google on “Ronald Reagan and Socialized Medicine” and you will find            several sites that provide audio access to his talk


9.  http://theplumline.whorunsgov.com/president-obama/audio-of-jim-demint-saying-health-care-will-           be-obamas-waterloo/

10. http://www.aei.org/issue/27338

11.At the time he wrote the article Mr. Besharov was the Joseph J. and Violet Jacobs Scholar in Social                   Welfare at the American Enterprise Institute

12. I was employed in federally sponsored planning for the implementation of the Community Mental                     Health Centers program, the Regional Medical Program and in the Comprehensive Health and Health             Systems Planning programs.

13.  http://www.lp.org/platform

14.  http://www.dehnbase.org/lpus/library/platform

15.  http://cato.org/pubs/handbook

16.  http://reason.com/archives/2008/11/25/the-libertarian- moment

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