Why ‘Small Government’ Isn’t Enough

 

shutterstock_269057810About a year ago, I generated some controversy around here with a series of threads on something I called “virtue conservatism.” Originally, I was merely looking for a new name for what we now call “social conservatism.” Over the course of the discussion, it became clear that this was about more than just branding. The central idea, however, is that conservatism needs to be about more than just beating back the administrative state. Small government principles are important, particularly in the realm of policy, but our vision needs to be more substantive that. And that broader vision should be evident in our rhetoric and our culture.

After that rather interesting conversation, I distilled some of my thoughts in a longish essay. It got sidetracked several times, and finally made it into print just today! But since the piece was very much inspired by conversations here at Ricochet, I thought I would post it with my thanks, and also invite commentary (or criticism!) from anyone who is interested. The title is: Slaying the Hydra: Can Virtue Heal the American Right?

Here’s the central metaphor, which is entirely Ricochet-inspired:

In Greek mythology, the hydra is a large reptilian beast with multiple serpentine heads. If one head is severed, two more grow in its place. A warrior intent on slaying the hydra would understandably tend to fixate on whichever head was actively threatening to devour him, but ultimately this was not a recipe for victory. In order to destroy the beast, it is necessary to deal with the monster in its totality.

The modern administrative state and our militant secular culture are like two heads of a single hydra. The modern state is a kind of secular church, wherein secular progressives pursue the only kind of fulfillment they think possible for humankind. The size and intrusiveness of the modern state mirror the strength and aggression of our secular culture. But the state also helps to create optimal conditions for the further entrenchment of secular ideals, by undermining natural community and fostering vice. It saps the strength and natural resources of its citizens, until they are finally unable to resist its incursions on their liberty.

In short, the state and its supportive culture are part of a single whole. Neither can be killed while the other lives, and by fixating too wholly on one, we risk leaving the other to build in strength, ultimately paving the way for a resurgence of both.

 

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  1. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Dan, your first paragraph nicely encapsulates a position my article is meant to answer. But the short answer is: we simply have to keep fighting to persuade the public to see virtue correctly. If we lose that battle, everything is lost. Your recommended “neutral small government” fix is simply a mirage, and while we fruitlessly pursue it, the secular hydra will gorge itself and ultimately devour us all.

    • #31
  2. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Rachel Lu: Dan, your first paragraph nicely encapsulates a position my article is meant to answer. But the short answer is: we simply have to keep fighting to persuade the public to see virtue correctly. If we lose that battle, everything is lost. Your recommended “neutral small government” fix is simply a mirage, and while we fruitlessly pursue it, the secular hydra will gorge itself and ultimately devour us all.

    Why is government power required to accomplish these goals?

    • #32
  3. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Rachel Lu:

    But there’s no reason in principle why we shouldn’t admit in the political sphere that drugs and porn are bad for people (and society as a whole), and that marriage is by nature a man-and-woman institution. And there’s no reason in principle why those premises should not factor into arguments about policy.

    Except that not everyone agrees with you.  ‘Porn is bad’ is not an objectively true statement,  it’s a matter of opinion.  The same is true for marriage:  It’s clearly not true that ‘by nature’ it is a man-and-woman institution, as evidenced by the fact that a whole lot of people want to get married who do not fit that definition.

    These are moral/religious beliefs,  not absolute truths.  You are free to believe them,  to teach your children that those things are bad,  to preach and proselytize against them,  to write books encouraging people to not engage in them.  You are free to turn people away from your business if you don’t like their moral choices.   I would support you in all those efforts – even if I disagreed.  Because dialog and free speech is a good thing, and because property rights means being able to exert control over your property as you see fit.

    But I don’t want you, me,  or anyone else gaining the power to try to enforce those choices on others who don’t share them.   For one thing,  you do not have the right.    For another,  I do not think giving government the power required to do so is a very good idea for lots of reasons having nothing to do with virtue.

    Then there’s the practical aspect:  So long as you live in a democracy and the majority of people disagree with you,  the only effect your policy choices will have is to cause you to lose elections.  So the answer is to first convince the public that your version of morality is correct – at which point you don’t really need government force to ensure it any more.

    I agree with Tom above – what we CAN do is make sure we’re not incentivizing bad behaviour.  Level the playing field,  and then let the people choose for themselves how they want to live.   Currently,  we incentivize a lot of bad behaviour.

    • #33
  4. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Rachel Lu:Dan, your first paragraph nicely encapsulates a position my article is meant to answer. But the short answer is: we simply have to keep fighting to persuade the public to see virtue correctly. If we lose that battle, everything is lost.

    I’m totally fine with that.  Persuade away!

    Your recommended “neutral small government” fix is simply a mirage, and while we fruitlessly pursue it, the secular hydra will gorge itself and ultimately devour us all.

    I never said that neutral small government was a ‘fix’.  I am confident that the forces of the marketplace and the rules of civil society will maximize our freedom and allow us to self-organize a well functioning society.  Whether that society follows the rules of morality that you want it to follow is another question entirely.   I guess it depends on how good you are at persuading people.

    I just insist that your plan to bring virtue to the people be a plan that involves persuasion and argument – not government force.

    • #34
  5. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Dan Hanson: So the answer is to first convince the public that your version of morality is correct – at which point you don’t really need government force to ensure it any more.

    A 1000x this.

    • #35
  6. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Arizona Patriot:

    Jamie Lockett:

    Rachel Lu: more detailed considerations of *what enables people to thrive* are illegitimate on-face in the political realm

    The answer to this is: small government.

    I’m reminded of the saying that “complicated problems have simple, easy to understand, wrong answers.”

    I like the idea of smaller government. But I think it is unrealistic to think that it will solve all problems.

    It seems that most people’s idea of “small government” is government that is just big enough to force other people to do whatever they think is really important for other people to do.

    • #36
  7. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Jamie Lockett:

    Dan Hanson: So the answer is to first convince the public that your version of morality is correct – at which point you don’t really need government force to ensure it any more.

    A 1000x this.

    I agree with Dan as well.  And while we’re on the subject of persuading people, a reasonable first step might be to not brand your argument with a really off-putting, self-righteous label like “VirtuCon.”

    • #37
  8. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    I of course think that porn *is* objectively bad. Drugs are slightly more complicated (morally speaking), but in some cases, not that much more complicated.

    I also maintain that your brand of relativism (as articulated by the likes of Jaime, Dan and Larry) cannot actually sustain small government. That’s really what the article is about.

    • #38
  9. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Larry3435:

    Jamie Lockett:

    Dan Hanson: So the answer is to first convince the public that your version of morality is correct – at which point you don’t really need government force to ensure it any more.

    A 1000x this.

    I agree with Dan as well. And while we’re on the subject of persuading people, a reasonable first step might be to not brand your argument with a really off-putting, self-righteous label like “VirtuCon.”

    I like keeping it real. Virtue is my game; no reason to mince around pretending otherwise.

    • #39
  10. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Rachel Lu: I also maintain that your brand of relativism (as articulated by the likes of Jaime, Dan and Larry) cannot actually sustain small government. That’s really what the article is about.

    Who said we are relativists?

    Just because we don’t favor using government power to force certain  outcomes doesn’t mean we don’t believe certain outcomes are desirable.

    • #40
  11. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Rachel Lu: I also maintain that your brand of relativism (as articulated by the likes of Jaime, Dan and Larry) cannot actually sustain small government. That’s really what the article is about.

    Wait… who’s arguing for moral relativism?

    • #41
  12. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: Wait… who’s arguing for moral relativism?

    See Larry’s comment at 37 about self-righteousness.

    • #42
  13. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Dan at least is clearly drawing a distinction between “absolute” truth and “moral and religious” truth. That’s pretty obviously relativistic, but Larry seems to be moving the same direction with his “whatever you happen to think is wrong” line.

    • #43
  14. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Rachel Lu: Dan at least is clearly drawing a distinction between “absolute” truth and “moral and religious” truth. That’s pretty obviously relativistic, but Larry seems to be moving the same direction with his “whatever you happen to think is wrong” line.

    Its only relativistic if you believe your moral and religious truth is absolute truth.

    • #44
  15. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Jamie Lockett:

    Rachel Lu: Dan at least is clearly drawing a distinction between “absolute” truth and “moral and religious” truth. That’s pretty obviously relativistic, but Larry seems to be moving the same direction with his “whatever you happen to think is wrong” line.

    Its only relativistic if you believe your moral and religious truth is absolute truth.

    So, in somewhat simple terms, there are two possibilities. My moral and religious beliefs may be grounded, ultimately, in *absolute* truths about human nature. Or they may be grounded in something more idiosyncratic and cultural; in other words, true only relative to some further-specified culture or belief system. The latter is what we usually call “moral relativism”. I am not a relativist, so yes, I think my moral beliefs are at least grounded in something absolute.

    • #45
  16. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Rachel Lu:Dan at least is clearly drawing a distinction between “absolute” truth and “moral and religious” truth. That’s pretty obviously relativistic, but Larry seems to be moving the same direction with his “whatever you happen to think is wrong” line.

    If I read Dan correctly — Dan, please correct me if I have you wrong — he does not believes pornography to be objectively immoral.

    That hardly precludes maintaining that other things are objectively immoral.

    • #46
  17. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Rachel Lu: So, in somewhat simple terms, there are two possibilities. My moral and religious beliefs may be grounded, ultimately, in *absolute* truths about human nature. Or they may be grounded in something more idiosyncratic and cultural; in other words, true only relative to some further-specified culture or belief system. The latter is what we usually call “moral relativism”. I am not a relativist, so yes, I think my moral beliefs are at least grounded in something absolute.

    I’m glad you believe that. It doesn’t make it true.

    • #47
  18. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Rachel Lu:

    Jamie Lockett:

    Rachel Lu: Dan at least is clearly drawing a distinction between “absolute” truth and “moral and religious” truth. That’s pretty obviously relativistic, but Larry seems to be moving the same direction with his “whatever you happen to think is wrong” line.

    Its only relativistic if you believe your moral and religious truth is absolute truth.

    So, in somewhat simple terms, there are two possibilities. My moral and religious beliefs may be grounded, ultimately, in *absolute* truths about human nature. Or they may be grounded in something more idiosyncratic and cultural; in other words, true only relative to some further-specified culture or belief system. The latter is what we usually call “moral relativism”. I am not a relativist, so yes, I think my moral beliefs are at least grounded in something absolute.

    I think you are probably correct in your transparency of thinking. Unfortunately, we are a republic and thus your chances of being queen are slim/naught.

    The idea of limited government so long as it limits that which doesn’t fit your moral and religious beliefs grounded in absolute truth is a very righteous way of invoking tyranny.

    • #48
  19. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Rachel, am I right that a reductionist form of one of your theses is that it’s inevitable that people are going to use the government to impose someone’s idea of objective morality, so we might as well come to terms with this and play the same game?

    • #49
  20. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Rachel Lu:I of course think that porn *is* objectively bad. Drugs are slightly more complicated (morally speaking), but in some cases, not that much more complicated.

    I also maintain that your brand of relativism (as articulated by the likes of Jaime, Dan and Larry) cannot actually sustain small government. That’s really what the article is about.

    This isn’t about what I believe.   The point is that you live in a democracy,  so whether ‘porn is bad’ is objectively true or not is irrelevant.  What’s relevant is that millions of other voters do not agree with you.  And they have as much right to live as they please as you do.    If you are right,  then living by your beliefs will help you achieve the Kingdom of Heaven.  And they will pay for their choices.   But that’s a matter between them and God – not between them and the government.

    I really get that you find much of society depressingly amoral or immoral,  and that you deeply wish it wasn’t that way.  But how does that make it your business?  If you don’t like Porn,  don’t watch it.  If you think porn is devastating drug-addicted women who are attracted to it for easy money,  start an outreach program.   Open a shelter.   Do God’s work however you see fit.

    • #50
  21. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Rachel Lu:Dan at least is clearly drawing a distinction between “absolute” truth and “moral and religious” truth. That’s pretty obviously relativistic, but Larry seems to be moving the same direction with his “whatever you happen to think is wrong” line.

    If I read Dan correctly — Dan, please correct me if I have you wrong — he does not believes pornography to be objectively immoral.

    That hardly precludes maintaining that other things are objectively immoral.

    I actually wasn’t trying to make a claim at all about what I personally believe is or isn’t moral.

    There are two ways to look at ‘absolute morality’.  One is a matter  of theology and epistemology.  That’s a discussing to have with philosophers, theologians, and your own conscience.

    But when we are talking about public policy,  ‘absolute morality’ is that which we can all agree on.  For example, murder and rape fit that definition,  and we don’t tear society apart over our differences in these areas.

    But in a democracy, if there are huge disagreements over what is moral and what isn’t,  then that’s a good reason to keep government out of it.  Trying to use force to  impose a view of morality on those who do not share it is a recipe for civil strife, not civil society.  Isn’t that the fundamental problem we’re currently having with progressives?

    • #51
  22. David Sussman Contributor
    David Sussman
    @DaveSussman

    Rachel,

    Great work. The hydra concept is valid, although as I was reading this, I was considering how Conservative parties from other countries have coped with these questions. I grew up in England and still follow their byzantine politics closely.

    Compared to American politics, one remarkable difference in British elections is the lack of discussion on these ‘virtuous’ social issues. British Conservatives run in a Parliamentary system whereas the issues are dictated by national party bosses. Conservatives run on platforms of taxation/VAT reform and immigration (economy/security) conveying a limited government philosophy, or “small state minimalism”.

    Britain has certainly become a more secular society. Yet the Church plays a large roll outside of gov’t. Divisive social issues like abortion are at the margins of British politics. There are the occasional rumblings by political advocates in some Conservative corners (ie: seeking abortion laws to be reduced from 24 to 12 weeks throughout UK except Northern Ireland where it’s not legal) and while it gained some negative attention from international women’s groups, it hardly registered on the political stage. These are simply not issues to be elected on. Yet, the comparably lesser centralized U.S. government and it’s political parties are incentivized to ensure these social issue pots continue boiling.

    Notwithstanding the significant differences between Parliamentary and Federalist models, U.S. small gov’t Conservatives could take a page from the British.

    • #52
  23. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    David, how are the British doing in these areas?  Not very well, are they?  Not a model I think we are going to benefit from following.  Anyway, abortion, marriage and the like are not religious issues necessarily, though religious people care about them. These things do end up in politics in Britain too.  They have to because they are matters of law.  They just don’t get much discussion apparently.  That doesn’t seem like an improvement to me.  You can easily make non-religious conservative arguments about these issues. And read your founders and Tocqueville on civil society.  It is central to American life, and progs are doing their darndest to kill it.  So no thanks.

    Libertarians–Mike H. is correct.  The neutral small state that you think you want is not an option.  It is only by having a western culture with some idea of what the good is that we are going to have what you want–small government.  You need some basics for this to happen, however.  You need people to assume that they should be responsible about sex and bringing children into the world and parenting them, that children need stable secure families and their own two parents whenever possible, that all lives matter, even the unborn.  Without these basics you are not going to get small government.

    • #53
  24. David Sussman Contributor
    David Sussman
    @DaveSussman

    Merina Smith: David, how are the British doing in these areas?  Not very well, are they?  Not a model I think we are going to benefit from following.

    Merina, British Conservatives run the show. Prime Minister David Cameron’s’ Conservative party swept Parliament.

    In last Springs election “the Liberal Democrats were virtually erased.”

    So, I would say British Conservatives are doing very well indeed.

    • #54
  25. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    David Sussman:

    Merina Smith: David, how are the British doing in these areas? Not very well, are they? Not a model I think we are going to benefit from following.

    Merina, British Conservatives run the show. Prime Minister David Cameron’s’ Conservative party swept Parliament.

    In last Springs election “the Liberal Democrats were virtually erased.”

    So, I would say British Conservatives are doing very well indeed.

    But please understand, by American standards, they really aren’t very conservative.  So I repeat–no thanks.

    • #55
  26. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Merina Smith:David, how are the British doing in these areas? Not very well, are they? Not a model I think we are going to benefit from following. Anyway, abortion, marriage and the like are not religious issues necessarily, though religious people care about them. These things do end up in politics in Britain too. They have to because they are matters of law. They just don’t get much discussion apparently. That doesn’t seem like an improvement to me. You can easily make non-religious conservative arguments about these issues. And read your founders and Tocqueville on civil society. It is central to American life, and progs are doing their darndest to kill it. So no thanks.

    If it is true that the UK are not doing well in the areas you mention and I have no basis to counter your point then I think it proves what the rest of us are arguing.

    Conservatives did win handsomely last cycle, but they are still beset with the NHS and enlarged welfare state.

    If anything the size of government and welfare state that seeks to eliminate consequences of less virtuous choices has in fact provided fertile ground for more of those choices.

    Cradle to grave healthcare and a safety net are deemed virtuous in the UK, but those systems subsidize less virtuous behavior. Shrinking the government so individuals endure the consequences of their decisions tends to lead to fewer poor choices.

    • #56
  27. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    But the Brits are not going to shrink government because they don’t have nearly the concept of respect for family, religion and civil society that Americans do, as Tocqueville so aptly observed.  That is what we are talking about here. Those are the basis for entrusting more to civil society and less to government.  You must keep those institutions strong if you are going to have small government, otherwise people demand large government because they don’t have family, church and other civil institutions to turn to.

    • #57
  28. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Merina Smith:But the Brits are not going to shrink government because they don’t have nearly the concept of respect for family, religion and civil society that Americans do, as Tocqueville so aptly observed. That is what we are talking about here. Those are the basis for entrusting more to civil society and less to government. You must keep those institutions strong if you are going to have small government, otherwise people demand large government because they don’t have family, church and other civil institutions to turn to.

    I will invoke a response similar to yours earlier about never seeing a libertarian size small gov’t (or to that effect).

    It is highly unlikely that you are going to cajole folks prone to less than virtuous behavior to mend their ways so that your vision of limited gov’t may emerge.

    Sometimes, discipline and force of withholding benefits resulting in individual consequences of choices is a more efficient, expedient, and realistic path.

    • #58
  29. David Sussman Contributor
    David Sussman
    @DaveSussman

    BrentB67:

    If it is true that the UK are not doing well in the areas you mention and I have no basis to counter your point then I think it proves what the rest of us are arguing.

    Conservatives did win handsomely last cycle, but they are still beset with the NHS and enlarged welfare state.

    If anything the size of government and welfare state that seeks to eliminate consequences of less virtuous choices has in fact provided fertile ground for more of those choices.

    Cradle to grave healthcare and a safety net are deemed virtuous in the UK, but those systems subsidize less virtuous behavior. Shrinking the government so individuals endure the consequences of their decisions tends to lead to fewer poor choices.

    Brent,

    I agree with your points regarding it’s impact on behaviour.

    NHS was one of the big election issues. Conservatives are working to reform the bloated and bankrupt system which was implemented by Labour almost 70 years ago. Labour’s election scare tactics was that Conservatives would defund and gut the system. Cameron is working to make it more efficient and cost effective. But much like the ACA or some form of it, we won’t ever see it disappear.

    • #59
  30. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Merina Smith: Libertarians–Mike H. is correct.  The neutral small state that you think you want is not an option.  It is only by having a western culture with some idea of what the good is that we are going to have what you want–small government.  You need some basics for this to happen, however.  You need people to assume that they should be responsible about sex and bringing children into the world and parenting them, that children need stable secure families and their own two parents whenever possible, that all lives matter, even the unborn.  Without these basics you are not going to get small government.

    Do you understand how using the government to cause small government sounds self-contradictory to a libertarian’s ear?

    • #60
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