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. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Dan Hanson:….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?

    Have we ever had a civil society then by this standard?Seems to me that most of history, including our own, has been marked by much more severe and restrictive imposition of what you’d refer to as moral positions.

    I’d say the problem with progressives is that they’ve nationalized these decisions, judicialized these decisions out of reach of the democratic process, and expanded national involvement beyond the legitimate charter.

    • #61
  2. David Sussman Contributor
    David Sussman
    @DaveSussman

    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.

    We are on the same team, but statements like that are bunk.

    • #62
  3. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Merina Smith:

    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.

    By American standards republicans really aren’t very conservative so I intone – no thanks.

    • #63
  4. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    Mike H:

    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?

    I’m not talking about using government to shrink government.  I’m talking about upholding civil society and family so that government is not necessary.  You will never shrink government without strong families and local cultures.  Won’t happen.

    • #64
  5. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    BrentB67:

    Merina Smith:

    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.

    By American standards republicans really aren’t very conservative so I intone – no thanks.

    Way more conservative than the Brits.  And we are actually more conservative than 10 years ago in some ways.  We have more conservative candidates at least.  Not Trump, but others.  And to the extent that people like Trump, it is because he talks conservative.

    • #65
  6. Augustine Member
    Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:…but I also don’t quite know what to do with it. I would assume that marriage is a central part of this — as well it should be — but does simply mean opposing SSM? If that’s not my thing, what else can VirtuCons and I work together on, or what policies should I support with them?

    Those aren’t rhetorical questions. I’m quite serious.

    Certainly not just that.  Since this is not strictly political, it also means things like these in the local church, the neighborhood, and the family:

    • fighting porn addiction;
    • fighting no-fault divorce;
    • and valuing pregnancy and children.
    • #66
  7. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    David Sussman:

    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.

    We are on the same team, but statements like that are bunk.

    In the sense that Tocqueville observed–I think Americans are different in this way. We have, for example, a much more vibrant religious scene than in Britain, probably because we don’t have an established church.  And I think it is a positive thing that family and abortion are serious political issues. They should be political issues because Congress passes laws about these things. So no, not bunk.

    • #67
  8. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    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.

    It’s not relativism to recognise that all human perception is flawed – and that includes both of our perceptions of what is good and bad.  We can agree that there is an absolute good and a bad, but we can legitimately disagree about what that is without either of us being ill-intentioned or lacking in moral fibre.

    Creating conditions where people are free to be virtuous as their conscience dictates is arguably a moral use of government – rather than conditions where my conscience dictates to yo, or yours to me.  Because we could both, in all humility, be wrong, right?

    • #68
  9. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Zafar: It’s not relativism to recognise that all human perception is flawed – and that includes both of our perceptions of what is good and bad.  We can agree that there is an absolute good and a bad, but we can legitimately disagree about what that is without either of us being ill-intentioned or lacking in moral fibre. Creating conditions where people are free to be virtuous as their conscience dictates is arguably a moral use of government – rather than conditions where my conscience dictates to yo, or yours to me.  Because we could both, in all humility, be wrong, right?

    The main point is that in a democracy giving government the power to coerce morality means you must make peace with the fact that it will be used to do things you consider immoral. Like forcing bakers to participate in ceremonies they disagree with.

    • #69
  10. Augustine Member
    Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Augustine:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:…but I also don’t quite know what to do with it. I would assume that marriage is a central part of this — as well it should be — but does simply mean opposing SSM? If that’s not my thing, what else can VirtuCons and I work together on, or what policies should I support with them?

    Those aren’t rhetorical questions. I’m quite serious.

    Certainly not just that. Since this is not strictly political, it also means things like these in the local church, the neighborhood, and the family:

    • fighting porn addiction;
    • fighting no-fault divorce;
    • and valuing pregnancy and children.

    Lest there by any confusion, I don’t mean mobilizing churches and neighbors and families to fight politically against no-fault divorce and for porn laws (though perhaps there is a place for this).

    I mean, rather, that since a VirtuCon (typically) believes that there are moral laws against no-fault divorce and porn use, VirtuCons in their churches, neighborhoods, and families should live by them–and help others to do the same.

    • #70
  11. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Merina Smith:

    Mike H:

    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?

    I’m not talking about using government to shrink government. I’m talking about upholding civil society and family so that government is not necessary. You will never shrink government without strong families and local cultures. Won’t happen.

    OK. What makes you think we disagree that we need a good culture to shrink government? I know we’re not going to get to my prefered society until people stop rejecting the logical conclusion of their most fundamental beliefs about morality. Maybe you weren’t saying we need government to shrink government (with the intermediate step of upholding society with government) but that was the impression I was getting from Rachel. She hasn’t had a chance to respond to me, but you told me I had it right.

    • #71
  12. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Zafar:

    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.

    It’s not relativism to recognise that all human perception is flawed – and that includes both of our perceptions of what is good and bad. We can agree that there is an absolute good and a bad, but we can legitimately disagree about what that is without either of us being ill-intentioned or lacking in moral fibre.

    Creating conditions where people are free to be virtuous as their conscience dictates is arguably a moral use of government – rather than conditions where my conscience dictates to yo, or yours to me. Because we could both, in all humility, be wrong, right?

    Epistemic modestly has its place, but it seems like people get a lot more persnickety about it when it comes to moral matters. I don’t hear people getting nearly so upset about this when we’re talking economics, say, or even just policy. Do we understand economics better than morality? Personally, I would say no.

    Now, perhaps the concern is more that no one wants to live in a world where we’re constantly beating each other into submission. I certainly agree with that. Lovers of virtue can recognize the value of respecting the autonomy of natural, organic community: the state, the city, the family. And to some extent the individual too. But we do that primarily out of respect for natural, organic forms of community, not primarily out of epistemic modesty. I think families should go to church, but if yours doesn’t I won’t try to force you. Not necessarily because forced-churchgoing will have no morally salutary effects. (It likely wouldn’t, but hard to say for sure. Stranger things have happened.) Because I think it’s important to respect the rhythm of your family’s life.

    Those are the sorts of beliefs that prevent the virtue approach from descending into fascism.  Not a massive dose (unparalleled in far-less-important areas of knowledge) of epistemic modesty. And one big problem with the modesty approach is that the progressive left doesn’t respect it at all, and never, ever will. Small government conservatives think they’re signing a treaty, and somehow they don’t notice that the left never really signs. Actually they’re just abandoning a whole front of the battle in exchange for basically nothing, and leaving their other flanks hideously exposed.

    • #72
  13. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Rachel Lu: I don’t hear people getting nearly so upset about this when we’re talking economics, say, or even just policy.

    Because those are legitimate realms for politics.

    • #73
  14. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    Mike H: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?

    This is what you have basically right, Mike, in that there will not be a vacuum, the likes of which libertarians pine for.  That mythical place where complete freedom resides, or nearly.  It’s not how humans operate.  Solid family and community structure are necessary for small government because then people are far more likely to take care of themselves and not want government to interfere except to uphold the basic structures.  This is part of the reason, not all but part, that we’ve been fighting so hard for marriage and will continue to fight.  We want the freedom to live our lives as we see fit.

    • #74
  15. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    Jamie Lockett:

    Rachel Lu: I don’t hear people getting nearly so upset about this when we’re talking economics, say, or even just policy.

    Because those are legitimate realms for politics.

    It is curious that you fought so hard to redefine marriage since you think that is not a legitimate realm for government.

    • #75
  16. Augustine Member
    Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Jamie Lockett:

    Rachel Lu: I don’t hear people getting nearly so upset about this when we’re talking economics, say, or even just policy.

    Because those are legitimate realms for politics.

    I don’t understand.  Epistemic humility is less important in legitimate political realms?  Why?

    • #76
  17. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Merina Smith: It is curious that you fought so hard to redefine marriage since you think that is not a legitimate realm for government.

    I fought hard to have government get out of defining marriage. If you or our church or your baker want to define it a certain way have at it.

    • #77
  18. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Rachel Lu:

    Epistemic modestly has its place, but it seems like people get a lot more persnickety about it when it comes to moral matters. I don’t hear people getting nearly so upset about this when we’re talking economics…Do we understand economics better than morality?

    I think we agree more about economics than about morality – wrt good/bad outcomes and their causes.  And when we disagree, a different opinion doesn’t imply that dissenters are bad human beings – which a disagreement about morality can.  Perhaps that’s why?

    Lovers of virtue can recognize the value of respecting the autonomy of natural, organic community: the state, the city, the family. And to some extent the individual too. But we do that primarily out of respect for natural, organic forms of community, not primarily out of epistemic modesty.

    It’s pretty close if it acknowledges the right of these other things to be wrong and for this to have a place in and impact on the world.

    Small government conservatives think they’re signing a treaty, and somehow they don’t notice that the left never really signs. Actually they’re just abandoning a whole front of the battle in exchange for basically nothing, and leaving their other flanks hideously exposed.

    Not an SGC, but my understanding is: they want small government, & success is measured by change in the size of government; not by immediate moral or social outcomes (which they do think small govt will lead to).

    • #78
  19. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Rachel Lu:

    Epistemic modestly has its place, but it seems like people get a lot more persnickety about it when it comes to moral matters. I don’t hear people getting nearly so upset about this when we’re talking economics, say, or even just policy. Do we understand economics better than morality? Personally, I would say no.

    When you have a society in which many people disagree on the rules for private living,  the best form of government is one which gives the people maximum latitude in choosing their lifestyle,  so long as they are not directly harming others.

    In other words,  when the government tries to force or influence conformity to a social order in any way,  it crosses a very important line.

    One view of  ‘society’ is as a large social collective – one whose well-being supercedes the rights of individuals to live as they see fit, or at least whose judgement is allowed to override or influence the judgement of those who disagree with it.

    But many of us believe people are born with intrinsic freedom.  So long as they are paying their own way, following the basic social contract to obey constitutionally-valid laws, living up to the contracts they voluntarily enter, and are not interfering with or risking harm to others,  they can do whatever they please.

    You are asking the question, “What should we be doing to try to influence the culture?”  People who disagree with you are asking a different question: “What gives you the right to try?  Don’t you get mad when we try to do it to you?”

    I like the idea of living virtuously by example.  Show through your own actions and charitable acts that you are a person other people would like to emulate.  Raise your kids well so that they out-perform the others and help to build the cultural strength of your side.  Use art to express your feelings and attempt to get others to feel what you feel.  Find public spaces where people voluntarily come to hear your message, and preach from there.

    Win hearts and minds – don’t tell people what to do or how to live.

    To be fair,  I understand the issue from the point of view of your side as well.  If this were a simple issue we’d have all sorted it out by now.

    • #79
  20. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    Jamie Lockett:

    Merina Smith: It is curious that you fought so hard to redefine marriage since you think that is not a legitimate realm for government.

    I fought hard to have government get out of defining marriage. If you or our church or your baker want to define it a certain way have at it.

    Don’t look now, but that is not what you got.  Government took the right to define marriage away from the people, or at least is trying very hard to do that, though many of us won’t play along. You got bigger and more invasive government trying to shut down anybody who disagrees with them.  That is what is astounding about this whole thing–libertarians, who are supposedly all about freedom, can’t see when it is being curtailed under their very noses, and in fact cheer it on.

    • #80
  21. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    Dan, many of us think you are living in a fantasy world.  You think there is some mythical place where perfect freedom exists. There isn’t.  Humans are social animals, and since we start as very helpless beings who take a long time to mature, we have to be raised and socialized.  We are not and can’t be a society that consists solely of autonomous adults.  In order to grow to be responsible citizens, children need to be raised in decent circumstances and taught to be decent.  So there has to be an idea about what decency is that is mirrored in the culture or this will not happen.  If we don’t have and champion conservative decency, we will have the lefty idea, which is in fact lack of respect for life, family and all kinds of other vital things for the well-being of children. Theirs is a raw quest for power disguised as all kinds of other stuff that in the end enriches only lefty elites and is very bad for everyone else as Charles Murray has shown.  The thing you think you want–and be careful what you wish for–amounts to leftism or chaos.

    • #81
  22. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Rachel Lu: Small government conservatives think they’re signing a treaty, and somehow they don’t notice that the left never really signs. Actually they’re just abandoning a whole front of the battle in exchange for basically nothing, and leaving their other flanks hideously exposed.

    Some small government conservatives think they are interdicting the enemy’s supply lines, and feel that a full-scale cavalry charge across the quagmire into the Titan’s prepared positions is not the smartest way to approach a campaign.

    And wasn’t the secret to defeating the Hydra to cut off the heads one-by-one, but cauterize (or poison) the wounds to prevent regrowth? I’m not sure what the VirtuCon prescription is here: convince the heads to shrink in tandem?

    • #82
  23. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    How much liberty is required for virtue? At some point the training wheels need to come off.

    LibertyVirtue1776

    • #83
  24. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Merina Smith: Don’t look now, but that is not what you got.  Government took the right to define marriage away from the people, or at least is trying very hard to do that, though many of us won’t play along. You got bigger and more invasive government trying to shut down anybody who disagrees with them.  That is what is astounding about this whole thing–libertarians, who are supposedly all about freedom, can’t see when it is being curtailed under their very noses, and in fact cheer it on.

    No we just see it as separate issues as we have stated again and again and again and again. You just refuse to acknowledge this fact so you can use it as a bludgeon against libertarians.

    I’m not going around this horn with you again.

    • #84
  25. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    By the way – many thanks Rachel for writing this up and agreeing to enter the lists again.

    • #85
  26. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    Jamie Lockett:

    Merina Smith: Don’t look now, but that is not what you got. Government took the right to define marriage away from the people, or at least is trying very hard to do that, though many of us won’t play along. You got bigger and more invasive government trying to shut down anybody who disagrees with them. That is what is astounding about this whole thing–libertarians, who are supposedly all about freedom, can’t see when it is being curtailed under their very noses, and in fact cheer it on.

    No we just see it as separate issues as we have stated again and again and again and again. You just refuse to acknowledge this fact so you can use it as a bludgeon against libertarians.

    I’m not going around this horn with you again.

    Unfortunately for you the real world is not separated into little libertarian boxes.  Everything affects everything else.

    • #86
  27. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Merina Smith: Unfortunately for you the real world is not separated into little libertarian boxes.  Everything affects everything else.

    Because, and follow me here, government is so big that it touches everything.

    • #87
  28. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    genferei:

    Rachel Lu: Small government conservatives think they’re signing a treaty, and somehow they don’t notice that the left never really signs. Actually they’re just abandoning a whole front of the battle in exchange for basically nothing, and leaving their other flanks hideously exposed.

    Some small government conservatives think they are interdicting the enemy’s supply lines, and feel that a full-scale cavalry charge across the quagmire into the Titan’s prepared positions is not the smartest way to approach a campaign.

    And wasn’t the secret to defeating the Hydra to cut off the heads one-by-one, but cauterize (or poison) the wounds to prevent regrowth? I’m not sure what the VirtuCon prescription is here: convince the heads to shrink in tandem?

    The left has a very clear idea about what they want–power–and how to get it–disrupt the age old basis of freedom–strong family, community and yes, religion.  Meanwhile, we tilt at that windmill with wholly inadequate calls for “small government” while acquiescing, though dragging our feet a bit–in their schemes.  Until we bravely champion the actual basis of freedom, we’re just going to get more leftism and more ugly heads.

    • #88
  29. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Merina Smith:

    [T]here will not be a vacuum, the likes of which libertarians pine for. That mythical place where complete freedom resides, or nearly. It’s not how humans operate. Solid family and community structure are necessary for small government because then people are far more likely to take care of themselves and not want government to interfere except to uphold the basic structures.

    Perhaps I’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen anyone here argue against this.

    The disagreements seem — as best I follow — to be over what’s necessary to maintain strong families and cultures, as well as a few disagreements over their precise boundaries (e.g., is gay marriage compatible with them, etc).

    • #89
  30. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    Jamie Lockett:

    Merina Smith: Unfortunately for you the real world is not separated into little libertarian boxes. Everything affects everything else.

    Because, and follow me here, government is so big that it touches everything.

    Follow me here–without strong families and communities, there is no way to disrupt big government because people don’t have a support system and will demand it.  The thing you think you want will never and can never exist.

    • #90
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