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Government, Yes! Leviathan, No!

Government, Yes! Leviathan, No!

5 Mins
March 19, 2010

October 5, 2001 -- Have the terrorist attacks of September 11 brought Americans around to a Left-liberal conception of government? Do many more citizens now believe that Washington should keep taxes high, provide the public with an ever-expanding array of services, and hire bureaucrats to take over private sector tasks? So one might conclude from the elite media's reporters and columnists.


Greg Hitt and Jeanne Cummings wrote on the front page of the Wall Street Journal (September 26, 2001): "In just two weeks, the terrorist attacks have turned a two-decade trend toward less government into a headlong rush for more." Robin Toner wrote in the "Week in Review" section of the New York Times (September 30, 2001): "Suddenly, the political language of a generation looks dated: Nobody wants to get the government off their backs. Nobody really wants to hear that the era of big government is over."

Ronald Brownstein wrote in the Los Angeles Times (September 19, 2001): "Only days before the attack, Bush was arguing that the shriveling of the federal budget surplus was a good thing because it meant Washington would have less money to spend on public programs. Yet in the attack's dizzying aftermath, where did almost all Americans turn for answers if not to the federal government?" In his Wall Street Journal column (September 27, 2001), Albert R. Hunt wrote: "For a quarter-century, the dominant public culture has suggested government is more a problem than a solution. Even in the most prosperous of times pressures persisted to hold down spending; Democrats like Bill Clinton and Al Gore bragged about cutting bureaucrats and, until sixteen days ago, regulation was a dirty word in the Bush administration. But, as during previous catastrophes, America turns to government in crisis."

"Suddenly, the political language of a generation looks dated: Nobody wants to get the government off their backs. Nobody really wants to hear that the era of big government is over."

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote (September 16, 2001): "There are some things on which the government must spend money, and not all of them involve soldiers. If we refuse to learn that lesson, if we continue to nickel-and-dime crucial public services, we may find—as we did last week—that we have nickel-and-dimed ourselves to death." And, lastly, Jim Hoaglund wrote in the Washington Post (September 26, 2001): "To defeat terrorism with a global reach, President Bush and his congressional allies must go against the tide of recent history and their own instincts. They will have to return government closer to the center of American life, not whittle away further at its power and funding."


One struggles to believe in the intellectual honesty of one's opponents, lacking positive evidence to the contrary. But is it possible that people as sophisticated as those cited above think the terrorist attacks have spurred renewed demand for a welfarist-regulatory state? Is it possible that they do not connect the public's sudden return of "confidence in government" (up from 35 percent to 64 percent) to what the government is now doing—prosecuting a war rather than trying to untangle the pathologies of the underclass? In short, is it possible that they are ignorant of the distinction between "limited government" and "small government"? We must assume they are. For once one makes that distinction, all of their paradoxes disappear.

"Limited government" means a government restricted to certain purposes, namely, the defense of individual rights; "small government" means a government that absorbs a small percentage of the gross national product. If a country has been invaded, its government might absorb 50 percent or more of the nation's product to mount a defense—and yet remain a "limited government" in the relevant sense. Conversely, a government that abandons its military and police missions might spend very little of the national output, but if it spends that little on health, education, and welfare, it is not a "limited government."

Do the columnists cited above not know this? Do they not know that the Right's push for privatization has nothing to do with "penny-pinching" (in Paul Krugman's words)? Have we not declared often enough that our cause rests on vision in the Declaration of Independence of a legitimate but circumscribed governmental role: securing the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Have we not pointed out frequently enough that Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution confers very necessary powers on Congress, but specific and enumerated powers?

Well, libertarians have made this case often and loudly. But, unfortunately, they have sometimes said other things as well.


Occasionally, speaking sloppily, libertarians have railed against "big" government rather than against what Ludwig von Mises called "omnipotent" government. And, admittedly, it is tempting. The federal government today is undoubtedly far bigger than it would be if confined to its proper purposes, and the growth of government over the last century makes a dramatic graph.

But a no less dramatic graph, and one that better captures the philosophic point of limited government, is the graph that Navigator ran in its June issue, showing the decline in military spending as a percentage of the federal budget over the last 40 years. In 1962, defense spending was 50 percent of the budget; today, it is less than 20 percent. Human resources, so called, have gone from 30 percent of the budget 40 years ago, to 65 percent today. The caption on the graph read: "When government begins to do what it shouldn't, it ceases to do what it should." With what consequences, we now know.

Jonah Goldberg, the editor of National Review Online, has recently made this same point with respect to the terrorist attack: "You could much more easily argue that this disaster was caused by having too much government. Not too little. If you're 'multitasking' while driving your car, and then you crash into a tree, nobody in their right mind would say 'this only reinforces the need to allow drivers to use cappuccino makers and microwave ovens in their cars.'"

That said, however, I believe that libertarians have occasionally attacked government in ways that are more than sloppy, that are in fact deeply flawed, and that open us up to the sort of criticisms we are now hearing. What I have in mind are such slogans as "I love my country; it's the government I hate." Government, for Objectivists, is a rational and legitimate institution, not one cursed with original sin. In the perspective of 10,000 years, government appears as a magnificent invention of man, one that makes civilization possible and for which we should be profoundly grateful. So, too, should we be profoundly grateful to the soldiers and statesmen who perform government's legitimate functions. They belong in the pantheon of man's heroes, and on the greatest of them we should bestow the classical reward of national honor.

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Law / Rights / Governance
Welfare State