Small Government: Lesser of Two Evils
Like many libertarians, I feel that small government is an eminently practical rule of thumb proven by hundreds (if not thousands) of years of observation. So when Rafe recently posted in response to a presentation that David Cameron made at TED, it got my dander up. Calling the small government philosophy, “… ivory tower idealism,” felt like a blatant misrepresentation. But then I wondered. Maybe Rafe had formed the honest (though mistaken) impression that small government advocates think that reducing government functions will lead to some sort of emergent order utopia?
I don’t know exactly what Cameron said because I can’t find a public video archive. This Guardian account indicates that he mostly hung platitudes on the scaffolding of giving people more choice and transparency. Choice is a big part of small government, but I thought it would be worth outlining what I think is the non-politician’s version of the libertarian small government ideology. It’s far from ivory tower. More like back alley.
It’s based on two observations: (1) local knowledge is important to good decision making and (2) concentration of power leads to abuses. I think few students of political history and organizational behavior would argue against these points, so I won’t detail them here. However, if anyone honestly thinks they are in doubt, I’d be happy to cover them in a subsequent post.
So, any time society assigns a role to government, it incurs the costs of (1) and (2). These costs tend to increase over time and as a situation departs from the ideal future path. So the expected net present value of these costs can be substantial. Libertarians therefore conclude that the benefits that the government brings to a role should, as a general rule, be quite large before we even consider it as an option. Notice that this does not imply no government at all. Rather, it implies we should use government sparingly.
The repeated pattern observed by libertarians goes like this. A problem arises. Everyone (even libertarians) agree that it is problem. Progressives push through a government program to address it. Initially, the program somewhat ameliorates the problem. However, the problem turns out to be trickier than first believed, so the benefits are usually not as great as expected. Over time, the problem evolves and adapts, further eroding program benefits. The government program evolves and adapts too, but more to promulgate its own survival than address the problem.
So we are left with much lower benefits than forecast and significant unforeseen costs (in the form of an everliving, mostly useless program). Libertarians conclude that in many cases the “cure” is worse than the disease. Not that it doesn’t suck having the disease. The irony of course is that the progressives then identify the results of an old government program as a new problem that requires… another government program (cough, cough, government intervention in financial markets, cough, cough).
Of course, some illnesses are actually bad enough that the (painful) cure is better than the disease. In those cases, bring on the government program. But let’s be realistic about the long term benefits and costs.