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:Ed G:

    We have a system for adjudication these kinds of social complaints: Tort law. If I am unduly impacting you, you can sue me for damages. We have contract law to allow people to work in proximity or together under voluntary constraint.

    One of the reasons we relegate these types of interactions to the tort system and don’t criminalize them is precisely because there are no bright lines once you get into ‘social’ effects. Every case is unique, every dispute has a different point of view.

    ….

    Sometimes patterns emerge, though, and it becomes silly to continue treating this pattern as unique every single time it comes up. As with everything else, though, people will disagree over what is a pattern, over what is obvious, over which side is right, etc.

    • #181
  2. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Ed G.:

    Dan Hanson: I hope you realize that the concept of ‘social harm’ or ‘societal’ harm aligns you perfectly with progressives.

    …..

    Quite right. No difference between me and a progressive. Except for the other differences that I’ve talked about in this thread.

    What differences are there that would translate into a constitutional limit on the government’s power to interfere with my life?  What is the legal rule we can apply to determine whether a law is or isn’t within the bounds of the constitution under your philosophy of government?

    If you think that porn is a pernicious influence on society and therefore a ban on it is justified even if the producers and consumers are all consenting adults,  then by what philosophical principle do you deny the Progressive’s demand that since  wealth inequality is damaging to society,  wealth should be redistributed even if it was created through the free transactions of citizens?  You might argue the premise, that wealth inequality is damaging society,  but is that your only defense?  What if the Progressives show up in court with a ream of papers documenting the damage that wealth inequality does?

    When you try to govern without a core foundation of individual rights,  then our freedoms become hostage to an endless series of power plays and constant bickering between ‘experts’ as to just how our lives should be controlled for the ‘common good’.

    I’d rather deny them the right to take my basic freedom at all.

    • #182
  3. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Dan Hanson:……….

    In your case, the common good is the moral health of society. In the Progressive’s case, it’s the re-adjustment of what they see as power and financial imbalances due to differences in privilege. What you have in common is that you both think that a valid role of the state is to limit the freedom of individuals minding their own business, in order to bring about a better world.

    …..

    No. You’re shifting the inherent subjectivity to a new term just as incapable of handling the load : “minding their own business”. You are also eliding the distinction between protecting from harm and compelling a better world.

    • #183
  4. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Ed G.:

    Dan Hanson:Ed G: ……

    …..Once you allow the nose of the government regulators into these areas, there are functionally no limits on state power. Obamacare was justified using this type of logic. So are bans on smoking, soft drinks, guns…

    ….

    I disagree. There are many “functional” limits. I think you’re talking about substantive or philosophical limits.

    ‘Functional’ limits are subjective and ephemeral.   At one time,  banning cigarettes was unthinkable.  Now we’re trying to ban large soft drinks.   Before 9/11,  the type of intrusions into our private lives carried out by the TSA and NSA were unthinkable.

    You seem to be arguing for unlimited democracy rather than for a constitutional government.   Again,   that puts you in bed with Progressives,  who think that the only checks on government power should be on ‘functional’ grounds (i.e. whatever the current voters of the day will stand for).

    • #184
  5. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Ed G.:

    Dan Hanson:……….

    In your case, the common good is the moral health of society. In the Progressive’s case, it’s the re-adjustment of what they see as power and financial imbalances due to differences in privilege. What you have in common is that you both think that a valid role of the state is to limit the freedom of individuals minding their own business, in order to bring about a better world.

    …..

    No. You’re shifting the inherent subjectivity to a new term just as incapable of handling the load : “minding their own business”. You are also eliding the distinction between protecting from harm and compelling a better world.

    No,  I think ‘compelling a better world’ has been the justification for tyrants throughout history.  And again,  that’s exactly what progressives think they are doing.   Now we’re just arguing goals and tactics – not the principle that government has no right to ‘compel a better world’ by interfering with the fundamental freedom of people to follow a path through life of their own choosing.

    I would also argue that you can’t ‘compel’ a better world,  and in fact a better world is one in which we don’t have people jockeying for political power so that they can be the ones doing the ‘compelling’.

    • #185
  6. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Dan Hanson:…..I never thought I’d have to justify individual rights on a conservative message board, but I guess this is a strange year.

    Who said I was against individual rights?

    • #186
  7. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Dan Hanson:

    Ed G.:

    Dan Hanson:Ed G: ……

    …..Once you allow the nose of the government regulators into these areas, there are functionally no limits on state power. Obamacare was justified using this type of logic. So are bans on smoking, soft drinks, guns…

    ….

    I disagree. There are many “functional” limits. I think you’re talking about substantive or philosophical limits.

    ‘Functional’ limits are subjective and ephemeral. At one time, banning cigarettes was unthinkable. Now we’re trying to ban large soft drinks. Before 9/11, the type of intrusions into our private lives carried out by the TSA and NSA were unthinkable.

    You seem to be arguing for unlimited democracy rather than for a constitutional government. Again, that puts you in bed with Progressives, who think that the only checks on government power should be on ‘functional’ grounds (i.e. whatever the current voters of the day will stand for).

    No, I’m not arguing for unlimited democracy. You’re just insisting that that’s the only alternative to your point of view.

    • #187
  8. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Well,  you seem to be against the right to watch porn, for starters.  Or am I misunderstanding exactly what you believe ‘compelling a better society’ entails other than stopping people from doing things they have a right to do?

    Maybe it would help if you got more specific and actually told us some policies that you would enact to bring about your better world?

    • #188
  9. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Dan Hanson:

    Ed G.:

    Dan Hanson:……….

    In your case, the common good is the moral health of society. In the Progressive’s case, it’s the re-adjustment of what they see as power and financial imbalances due to differences in privilege. What you have in common is that you both think that a valid role of the state is to limit the freedom of individuals minding their own business, in order to bring about a better world.

    …..

    No. You’re shifting the inherent subjectivity to a new term just as incapable of handling the load : “minding their own business”. You are also eliding the distinction between protecting from harm and compelling a better world.

    No, I think ‘compelling a better world’ has been the justification for tyrants throughout history. And again, that’s exactly what progressives think they are doing. Now we’re just arguing goals and tactics – not the principle that government has no right to ‘compel a better world’ by interfering with the fundamental freedom of people to follow a path through life of their own choosing.

    …..

    I don’t think we should try to compel a better world. So what is it that I have in common with progressives?

    • #189
  10. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Dan Hanson:Well, you seem to be against the right to watch porn, for starters. Or am I misunderstanding exactly what you believe ‘compelling a better society’ entails other than stopping people from doing things they have a right to do?

    Maybe it would help if you got more specific and actually told us some policies that you would enact to bring about your better world?

    While I don’t think that porn is a right, I don’t understand why you think I want to compel a better society or better world or whatever. I’ve explicitly said otherwise. Do you reject the distinction between protection from vice/harm and compelling virtue?

    • #190
  11. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Okay,  how about some specific policy proposals we can debate then?  Just exactly DO you want to do?  Neither you nor Rachel seems to want to commit to anything more substantive than, “we think that sometimes government has a role to play in shaping a more moral society.”  Other than that,  all we seem to be getting is evasion.  This isn’t really helpful.  So instead,  let’s talk about some concrete examples of what you think should be done.

    We can start with porn.  You don’t like it.  What should be done?  Should it be banned?  Should production of it be banned?

    How about violence or smut on TV?  How much censorship should there be of, say, HBO which only comes into your house if you subscribe to it?

    • #191
  12. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Dan Hanson:

    Ed G.:

    Dan Hanson:Ed G: ……

    …..Once you allow the nose of the government regulators into these areas, there are functionally no limits on state power. Obamacare was justified using this type of logic. So are bans on smoking, soft drinks, guns…

    ….

    I disagree. There are many “functional” limits. I think you’re talking about substantive or philosophical limits.

    ‘Functional’ limits are subjective and ephemeral. At one time, banning cigarettes was unthinkable. Now we’re trying to ban large soft drinks. Before 9/11, the type of intrusions into our private lives carried out by the TSA and NSA were unthinkable.

    …..

    I think you’re confusing function with specificity. The function has always been there (prohibition, blue laws, porn, drugs, public decency, etc.), it’s just the specific subjects that can change.

    • #192
  13. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Dan Hanson:Okay, how about some specific policy proposals we can debate then? Just exactly DO you want to do?….

    I just wanted to respond to some comments I saw on the thread concerning how government is constrained and the relative differences between libertarian, conservative, and progressive. Also, we were talking about how harm doesn’t have to mean what libertarians mean by it and the result isn’t automatic tyranny and raw power.

    Rachel can get more specific about what she’s proposing in the OP.

    • #193
  14. Augustine Member
    Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Jamie Lockett:You do realize that all of that, including the Founders distillation, has its philosophical roots in Locke and the harm principle.

    And do we all realize that the harm principle itself has philosophical roots?

    • #194
  15. Augustine Member
    Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Dan Hanson:Ed G: I hope you realize that the concept of ‘social harm’ or ‘societal’ harm aligns you perfectly with progressives.

    . . .

    Underlying this is the ‘communitarian’ school of thought, which says that first and foremost we are members of a social collective – a collective which has the right to impose restrictions on our behaviour not because we have directly harmed someone, but because the government thinks the collective will be better off if we don’t engage in that behaviour.

    Ed G.:

    I don’t know if the communitarian school as you describe it is the only option. I’m pretty sure it’s not.

    It certainly is not the only option.  It’s the Rousseau-Marx tradition on the communitarian extreme of the continuum having Ayn Rand on the other end.  Going from Rand to Marx on the continuum you pass through dozens of other options, including J. S. Mill, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Confucius, Aquinas, Augustine, Aristotle, Plato, Von Mises, and John Dewey.

    • #195
  16. Augustine Member
    Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Ed G.:

    Larry3435:Ed,

    . . . you are not actually participating in the discussion that the rest of us are having. You offer no principle limiting the legitimate use of government power. . . . That is not the subject that the rest of us are talking about.

    . . .

    We were talking about how government is constrained and the relative differences between libertarian, conservative, and progressive.

    Indeed.

    Also, we were talking about how harm doesn’t have to mean what libertarians mean by it and the result isn’t automatic tyranny and raw power.

    Whether Ed offers an alternative principle or not I do not know, but he is correct that there is such a thing as a view that is neither contemporary libertarianism nor tyranny.

    If you folks arguing against Ed are not relying on the false dilemma proposing that there really are only these two options, I’d appreciate some clarification of your argument.

    • #196
  17. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Augustine:

    Ed G.:

    Larry3435:Ed,

    . . . you are not actually participating in the discussion that the rest of us are having. You offer no principle limiting the legitimate use of government power. . . . That is not the subject that the rest of us are talking about.

    . . .

    We were talking about how government is constrained and the relative differences between libertarian, conservative, and progressive.

    Indeed.

    Also, we were talking about how harm doesn’t have to mean what libertarians mean by it and the result isn’t automatic tyranny and raw power.

    Whether Ed offers an alternative principle or not I do not know, but he is correct that there is such a thing as a view that is neither contemporary libertarianism nor tyranny.

    If you folks arguing against Ed are not relying on the false dilemma proposing that there really are only these two options, I’d appreciate some clarification of your argument.

    No one is arguing that.  No one is arguing anything close to that.  As a libertarian, I have a principled argument for the limits on legitimate government power.  Obviously, there are other possible limits, and I would be happy to debate whether those other possible limits are as well-reasoned as the libertarian approach.  But we’re not going to have that debate unless Ed, or someone, offers an alternative approach.

    Ed has been invited to state his alternative principle, and has been invited to offer specific policy proposals.  He has declined.  That’s not our fault.

    • #197
  18. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    I have to admit, when someone talks only about the goals they want government to achieve on behalf of society, without identifying any limits on the means government may use to achieve those ends, I get suspicious.  Ed does that.  Rachel does that.  Rachel wants a political party devoted to promoting what she calls “virtue.”  She does not explain very much about what this “virtue” means, but she does tell us that it is opposed to “secular culture.”  She identifies “secular culture” as one head of the hydra, that must be cut off and destroyed.  I can only assume that she plans to replace it with a non-secular (i.e., religious) culture.

    I do not share Rachel’s religion.  I do not share her religious beliefs.  I strongly suspect that I do not share her notions of what is virtuous.  Therefore, I am suspicious of her very vague proposal to generate a political movement to destroy secular culture and impose unspecified “virtues” on an unwilling populace.

    • #198
  19. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Larry3435: Rachel wants a political party devoted to promoting what she calls “virtue.”  She does not explain very much about what this “virtue” means, but she does tell us that it is opposed to “secular culture.”  She identifies “secular culture” as one head of the hydra, that must be cut off and destroyed.  I can only assume that she plans to replace it with a non-secular (i.e., religious) culture. I do not share Rachel’s religion.  I do not share her religious beliefs.  I strongly suspect that I do not share her notions of what is virtuous.  Therefore, I am suspicious of her very vague proposal to generate a political movement to destroy secular culture and impose unspecified “virtues” on an unwilling populace.

    Yes.  Exactly.

    • #199
  20. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Larry3435:I have to admit, when someone talks only about the goals they want government to achieve on behalf of society, without identifying any limits on the means government may use to achieve those ends, I get suspicious. Ed does that. …

    I haven’t talked about goals I want government to achieve on behalf of society.

    I have identified limits, multiple times in this thread. I get that they’re not good enough for you, but that’s not the same thing.

    • #200
  21. Augustine Member
    Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Larry3435:

    Augustine:

    . . . Ed . . . is correct that there is such a thing as a view that is neither contemporary libertarianism nor tyranny.

    If you folks arguing against Ed are not relying on the false dilemma proposing that there really are only these two options, I’d appreciate some clarification of your argument.

    No one is arguing that. No one is arguing anything close to that.

    . . . Obviously, there are other possible limits, and I would be happy to debate whether those other possible limits are as well-reasoned as the libertarian approach.

    On the contrary.

    You have carefully avoided this error, especially in this remark as well as here.  But that false dilemma was a(n unstated) premise used by both Jamie (see here) and by Dan H.:

    Dan Hanson:

    That’s where the bright line lives. Either an individual is free to live his or her own life and not have to justify it to anyone else so long as they are not injuring others, or ‘society’ or the collective has primacy, in which case the collective has the power to micro-manage your life to improve the health of the ‘common good’.

    Larry3435:

    . . . But we’re not going to have that debate unless Ed, or someone, offers an alternative approach.

    I have not given an alternative approach myself, but I mentioned here where I would start.  (I’m very friendly to the idea of taking a Lockean approach a long way past the start as well.)

    • #201
  22. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Larry3435:

    Augustine:

    …..

    Also, we were talking about how harm doesn’t have to mean what libertarians mean by it and the result isn’t automatic tyranny and raw power.

    Whether Ed offers an alternative principle or not I do not know, but he is correct that there is such a thing as a view that is neither contemporary libertarianism nor tyranny.

    If you folks arguing against Ed are not relying on the false dilemma proposing that there really are only these two options, I’d appreciate some clarification of your argument.

    No one is arguing that. ….

    I beg to differ. The argument has been made in this thread that extension of the concept of harm beyond direct and immediate can only lead to tyranny and is indistinguishable from progressivism. The argument that there is no real distinction between protection from vice and compelling virtue has been implied (or I inferred it); I asked the question a few times but I don’t recall an answer.

    • #202
  23. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Ed G.:

    Larry3435:I have to admit, when someone talks only about the goals they want government to achieve on behalf of society, without identifying any limits on the means government may use to achieve those ends, I get suspicious. Ed does that. …

    I haven’t talked about goals I want government to achieve on behalf of society.

    I have identified limits, multiple times in this thread. I get that they’re not good enough for you, but that’s not the same thing.

    Ed, you have said things like “charter, participation of the governed, faction, subsidiarity, federalism, balancing of functions, and the ultimate backstop of violence.”  That’s not a principled limit on government power.  That’s just a description of the rough and tumble of politics.  There is nothing in there that tells me anything about whether government should or should not do a particular thing.

    • #203
  24. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Ed G.:The argument that there is no real distinction between protection from vice and compelling virtue has been implied (or I inferred it); I asked the question a few times but I don’t recall an answer.

    I haven’t tried to answer, because I don’t know what you mean by vice or virtue.  If virtue simply means avoiding vices, then I don’t suppose there is any possible distinction.  If a virtuous life means something more than a life free from vice, then you could draw a distinction.

    For many people, “vice” simply means any behavior of which they disapprove, whether it harms anyone else or not.  So I would not discuss government restrictions on “vice” without knowing what vice you are talking about.

    • #204
  25. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    As far as giving an alternative myself: I have said that the harm principle is useful and used by conservatives (mostly) with the difference that harm doesn’t have to be direct and immediate. I’ve also offered the mechanisms that are the actual constraints and that allow for differences in principle to peacefully resolve themselves without dissolution of the community or even violence.

    However, I do not claim to have satisfactory answers – not even to me. There are some things, though, that seem true to me and so I try to fit them all together.

    Chiefly there is natural tension between individual rights and community. I haven’t yet seen an objectively correct prioritization and I doubt such a thing exists as long as objective morality is dependent on inherently unprovable assumptions. Sure, some proposals seem more preferable to me than others, some more utilitarian than others, some more realistic than others.

    • #205
  26. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Larry3435:

    Ed G.:

    …..

    I have identified limits, multiple times in this thread. I get that they’re not good enough for you, but that’s not the same thing.

    Ed, you have said things like “charter, participation of the governed, faction, subsidiarity, federalism, balancing of functions, and the ultimate backstop of violence.” That’s not a principled limit on government power. That’s just a description of the rough and tumble of politics. There is nothing in there that tells me anything about whether government should or should not do a particular thing.

    I haven’t met a wholly adequate principle yet, simply because of the natural tension between individual rights and community. Clear and bright, yes. Adequate, no. Not to mention practical; there will never be agreement on which principle is true or just. That is inherently a political question in practice – that is inherently a majority/power question in reality.

    That said, I have agreed that the harm principle is useful, only not as restricted to direct and immediate harm. Even unmodified the harm principle isn’t some locked down objective principle – it’s dependent on the subjective assessment of truth, justice, and harm.

    I also agree that individuals have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Notice, though, that those are all subjective terms too.

    • #206
  27. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Ed what is the philosophical limiting principle of harm can be indirect? After all isn’t indirect or potential harm the justification used for every ursupation of Liberty by the left over the last 100years?

    Also: can a community have rights?

    • #207
  28. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Jamie Lockett:Ed what is the philosophical limiting principle of harm can be indirect? After all isn’t indirect or potential harm the justification used for every ursupation of Liberty by the left over the last 100years?

    ……

    As I say, I haven’t read much philosophy. I also say that I’m skeptical of the existence of a principle which is both objectively limiting AND sufficient to address real harm and allow for the common good. I tend to think that common good should be more broadly defined the more local a political incorporation gets, by necessity. How broadly? That depends on what is thought of by the citizens as good or common or private.

    Reading a bit about Mill here, it seems pretty clear that even Mill allowed for exceptions to his maxims and that the common good was the primary purpose of government. Heck, even Mill’s formulation doesn’t specify the kind of direct harm you’re claiming. “As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion.” He refers to general welfare here, not individual welfare.

    Otherwise, no I don’t think that indirect harm has been used as the justification for every usurpation of liberty over the last 100 years; I think immanentizing the eschaton and compelling right has been the clear winner.

    • #208
  29. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Jamie Lockett:…..

    Also: can a community have rights?

    I don’t know about community rights, but I do know that a community has interests aside from those of its constituent individuals. I do know that community is a thing the way a corporation is a thing separate from any individual shareholder. I do believe that being part of a community involves some assignment or subjection of individual liberty. I do believe that a majority has legitimacy grounded in practicality, reality, and utility. I do believe that individuals have inherent dignity and worth. I know that the last two beliefs are in eternal tension.

    • #209
  30. Tutti Inactive
    Tutti
    @Tutti

    Hello everyone,

    I’ve just finished reading Arthur Brooks “The Conservative Heart” and it is an excellent book for conservatives (and liberals, if they dare) to read.  It has a chapter on how to win (and hold) the higher moral ground against progressives which is very much in tune with this conversation. I highly recommend it.

    • #210
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