Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Error of Big Government


Charles Kesler has a fascinating essay in the latest issue of Imprimis.

In brief, Kesler reminds us that we need to distinguish between limited (or constitutional) government and small government on one hand, and expansive government and unlimited (or unconstitutional) government on the other.

Limited government can be distinguished from small government. The two concepts are easily confused because they usually overlap. We are in the habit of invoking, for example, the percentage of Gross Domestic Product that is consumed by government as a sort of criterion. If that percentage goes up, we become alarmed for our liberties. If it goes down, we breathe a sigh of relief. And there is something to this: It is illuminating, for instance, that in 1930, before the New Deal, federal spending was 3.4 percent of GDP, whereas today it’s about seven times that. But there are other instances, perhaps more instances, where that figure can be misleading. At the height of World War Two, for example, the federal government spent 43.6 percent of GDP. But was this big government in the pejorative sense?

The problem with our government is not simply its size, but the kinds of things it does. In addition, Kesler reminds us that "the state" is only our enemy in the peculiar German sense of der Stadt.

The Progressives believed that freedom did not come from nature or God, but instead is a product of the state and is realized only in the modern state. Far from being the people’s servant and, therefore, a possible threat to freedom—because servants can be unfaithful—the state is the full ethical expression of a people. The state is the people and the people are the state. This strange use of the term represents the Progressive attempt to translate the German concept of der Staat into American politics. America did not have a state theory of this sort until the Progressive era. Conservative and most libertarian anti-statism arose in opposition to this innovation; but too often, in recent years, hostility to der Staat has been confused with opposition to government per se.

Read the whole thing.

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