Every little sub-culture uses language in its own way. When a person deeply entrenched in one sub-culture interacts with a person equally ensconced in another, both are liable to use the same words in completely different ways.
Conservatives, Republicans, Libertarians, even plenty of Independents, Moderates, and of course Tea-Partiers talk about “small” government. Sometimes it’s so small they advocate what they believe to be “anarchism.”
As this is not a post about anarchy, I will be brief in my criticism of it. If an advanced civilization could be maintained by spontaneous individualism, without the aid of any centralized governance, it would have occurred. There is no such thing as functional anarchy as described by its proponents, only a temporary power vacuum which will suck up the lives of countless innocents. Those who fantasize about anarchy are as naïve as the hippies at best, or the Bolsheviks at worst, who felt they could reinvent the wheel by rebuilding society from the ground up.
A minarchy is a minimal government. I assume this is what most people mean when they discuss “small” government (unless they are implying we ought to elect little people to represent us). It seems like a good idea. It seems efficient, non-intrusive, and best of all: cheap. Hell, even I’m on board with the idea.
So what is the minimum government? Therein lies the problem: there is no consensus (even within Conservative, Republican, or Libertarian circles, respectively).
There’s a few ways to go about figuring out what a minarchy would look like. One can start either from the positive or the negative. What things do we need government to do, or what things does the government do now that they should stop?
Let’s start with what we need from government. The primary thing is protection. “But Ginx, I have a gun.” That’s swell, but the Chinese have tanks and planes and submarines which can launch missiles from thousands of miles away. Maybe if we were fighting Napoleon and his muskets, we could mount an effective defense with citizen militias. Here in the 21st century, only people like Bill Gates could fund a civilian arsenal worthy of international engagement.
“But Ginx, we spend so much money on our military!” Okay, you have a point. Clearly one of the government’s roles is to protect the nation and its citizenry from without, but not at the expense of development within. What good is it to be able to stop all of America’s enemies from invading if the country itself is a pile of shit?
Anyone who has studied economics should know what an externality is. It is the primary economic concern of a minimal government. There are two kinds of externalities: external costs and external benefits. External costs cause goods to be overproduced while society pays the toll. The classic external costs is pollution. Before you ignore me because you think you have the global warming conspiracy all figured out, realize that pollution goes far beyond the bickering over carbon dioxide. It’s cheaper for a company to dump toxic chemicals into the nearest body of water than to properly dispose of them. Even if you hate wildlife, those chemicals eventually find their way into your water, your food, and even your children. I cannot believe I just resorted to “Think of the children!”
External benefits are the keystone of modern societies. They are the roads you drive on, the sidewalks you buy drugs on, the firemen who put out the blaze in your neighbor’s home so your house doesn’t burn down as well. These are the things your tax dollars pay for that benefit everyone. These are the goods which are for the use of any who need them. This is what is lost when taxes are cut and schools are under-funded and they have to start putting pictures of the food on registers which dispense the change automatically in fast food joints because the workers can’t always read or do math (and you wonder why the order gets messed up half the time…).
Even a “small” government has to do something. I think usually when people say “small” government, they really mean “my taxes are too high.” Except, the US has very low taxes and a deteriorating infrastructure. The taxes can’t go any lower. What people really need is a pay increase, and that has nothing to do with the government. It’s all in the hands of the people at the top, the people who write their own paychecks and bonuses, who giggle at how many zeros they can get away with removing from the company’s operating capital.
“Small” government supporters have no idea what they want, because they’re generally “small” minded, “small” time criminals who are paranoid of cops… probably because they break the law in some capacity on a regular basis… I’d be willing to bet drugs and taxes. You gotta pay your taxes, but I can honestly say drugs should be legalized... and taxed.
There is always the negative approach, which involves protesting the measures you disagree with. This is an effective tactic, and the improvement of legislation means the removal of bad laws just as often as it means the addition of good ones. Paring down the system we have is far simpler than trying to start from scratch.
I think people who obsess about the size of the government are completely missing the point. It’s not the size of the government, it’s how you use it.