The problem of excessive government

Claims made for government as a force for general improvement always turn out to be bogus. Yet it is amazing what claims have been made in the past. For instance after the war, the nationalization of our industries was justified as a means of safeguarding employment. It did nothing of the sort and, in spite of subsidies extracted from successful firms, the dole queues remorselessly lengthened. Or take another example, the state effectively squeezed out private healthcare, it suppressed educational choice, it introduced welfare from the cradle to the grave and it decanted whole communities into monotonous acres of municipal housing. The planners did all this to build a utopian society of free and fair shares for all. But, on the contrary, a centralized bureaucratic system forced much of the population into a new dependency.

—Margaret Thatcher. The Fourth Nicholas Ridley Memorial Lecture, London, November 22, 1996.

Government, with its apparently limitless amounts of money and its powers of coercion, can seem omnipotent. Enthralled by this delusion, the proponents of big government continually agitate to expand government activity into areas where it has no moral business to be. This leads to the stifling of freedom and prosperity.

Experience has shown the only way to prevent these follies is through constitutional limits on the scope of government. For example, the protection of free speech afforded by the U.S. Constitution has spared the American people the vast bureaucracy administering what may be published, a situation that has long plagued the culturally cowed people of Europe.

Nevertheless, the implementation of the U.S. Constitution has still proven deficient; the last eighty years has seen an explosive expansion of government which, if left uncorrected, will ultimately make the United States vulnerable to military conquest.

Strength through liberty

The uniform, constant, and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition, the principle from which public and national, as well as private, opulence is originally derived, is frequently powerful enough to maintain the natural progress of things toward improvement, in spite both of the extravagance of government, and of the greatest errors of administration. Like the unknown principle of animal life, it frequently restores health and vigour to the constitution, in spite not only of the disease, but of the absurd prescriptions of the doctor.

—Adam Smith. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776.

Those Hamiltonians who perceive the United States as being strong because of its numerous government agencies, its countless regulations, its corporatism, its trillion dollar bailouts, its vast public health care, its gigantic public education, its welfare establishments, its incredible debt, are deluded. These are its weaknesses, they are patches of ulcerated flesh against which its immune system is fighting a valiant defense. It is only those vestigial freedoms allowed to individuals that gives the United States what strength it has.

It follows that nothing is to be lost, and everything gained, by reducing the size of government. Just consider China—was it more powerful when a communist autocracy micro-managed every part of the economy, leading to mass starvation on collectivized farms, or now, since growing economic freedom has turned the country into the world’s second largest economy, on track to eclipse the United States?

Types of safeguards

The constitutional safeguards which protect limited government include:

  • A bill of rights.
  • provisions protecting the rule of law.
  • Deliberate bottlenecks on the passage of new legislation, including:
    • Prohibitions on the delegation of legislative power.
    • Limited sitting days.
    • Requirements for radical transparency.
    • Legislative veto.
    • Representative override.
    • Requirements that legislators know what they are voting for.
  • Referenda for the setting of taxation and spending.
  • safeguards to prevent the debasement of the currency.
  • Safeguards to prevent the perversion of the availability of credit.
  • Safeguards to prevent undue wars.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove