Sometimes, small government is the right answer.
The endless, mindless U.S. debate over the relative merits of “big government” and “small government” is a charade promoted by politicians for their personal advantage. Much worse, it conceals and confuses a debate of fundamental import to the nature of American governance on the very different issue:
“Under what conditions does society benefit from either “big” or “small” government?
Domestic spying. The amount of domestic spying and the degree to which the approval of specific types or instances of domestic spying is made in secret should be kept to an absolute minimum–exactly the opposite of the cancer of post-9/11 “smoke-filled room rewriting of the law.” Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has already made the case: “even secret operations need to be conducted within the bounds of established, publicly understood law.”
Corporate Welfare. There may be a theoretical situation in which the people should pay welfare to a corporation, but this grossly anti-capitalistic approach almost always amounts to stealing from the people to pay off corrupt corporate officials. Welfare for the employees of a bankrupt corporation is one thing, but taking the people’s hard-earned money to protect a corporation itself typically does not just create moral hazard throughout the economic system by rewarding incompetence and fraud but preserves precisely the rot that the invisible hand of capitalism is designed to surgically remove.
Starting a war. The most difficult thing for a leader to do should be starting a war. After 9/11 we saw how incredibly easy it is for a determined leadership clique to force or trick a population into a needless war. To protect democracy, starting a war of aggression should require a leader to run a public legal gauntlet designed to make wars of aggression as painful for the elite as possible. Sending intelligence personnel overseas with weapons, hiring mercenaries, and contracting for armed support functions are examples of operations that should be illegal except after a variety of government bodies have expressly granted their approval for specific actions with termination dates. The White House, for example, should clearly be prohibited from initiating any such action without both the public approval of Congress and review by a public board of review whose independence is protected by mandating the inclusion of academics and representatives of minor parties. Some process for acquiring the public permission from a majority of state legislatures also merits consideration. If a war truly needs to be fought, most nonpartisan thinkers, most Congressmen, most state legislators, and most minor parties will support it.
Protest. When power uses the police to repress popular criticism, we come to the most outrageous form of big government. Police, army, and intelligence organizations exist in a free society for one legitimate reason: to protect the people. They are rightfully neither the possession of the elite nor for its protection against the people. When the police respond to public protest against exploitative corporations accused of financial fraud or environmental crimes, when the police rush to arrest politicians accused by whistleblowers of abuse of power, then we will know that we live in a democracy.
When the issue concerns domestic spying, corporate welfare, starting a war, or popular democratic action to criticize and discipline politicians or other members of the ruling elite, government should be small…very small and very constrained by law, by lower levels of government, and by powers delegated to the people.