On Having Less Government

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my college days, I embraced the philosophy of anarchism. As I saw it then, the state was the main cause of human suffering through oppression, war, violation of natural rights and its other ills. While individual criminals and small criminal groups could do bad things, they could not match the capacity for evil of the full state. Despite the wildness of youth, I mainly accepted the relative mildness of Thoreau’s anarchism. I did not advocate violence and hope that social change could come about by evolution rather than bloody revolution. I also did not drink the Marxist Kool Aid—I saw it as just another dubious religion with a problematic metaphysics.

While much of my commitment to anarchism was philosophical, honesty compels me to admit that some (or perhaps most) came from my rebellious nature and the insolence of youth. Since I did not like being bossed around by authorities (which I discerned to often be immoral and more often incompetent), anarchism provided a nice theoretical framework for my youthful rejection of authority. Oddly enough, I was not a chaotic individual: even then, I was a person of strict discipline (thanks, perhaps, to running) and very orderly. As such, I was not against order, but against immoral, irrational and ineffective authority.

Because of my youthful experimentation with anarchism, I have considerable sympathy for the Tea Party folks and the Republican politicians who honestly believe that “the government that governs least, governs best.” Those that are merely trying to hang on to the Tea stained tiger, well, they get no sympathy from me.

When these folks cry out that taxes are too high, that the state regulates too much, and that the state is violating our rights, I feel that old spark of anarchism flare up in my soul. However, when I look at the facts of what they are complaining about, that spark typically dies. As a former anarchist, I cannot get outraged that people are not allowed to pollute the environment as much as they would like. I cannot get mad that there have been some feeble attempts to put in regulations regarding what wrecked the economy. I also certainly do not see passing restrictive laws regarding women’s reproductive rights as “small government.”

That said, I do like the idea of smaller government—in the same sense that I like the idea of keeping myself lean. As a runner, I know that extra pounds of fat slow me down. As someone who knows a bit about health, I know that extra pounds of fat are unhealthy. By analogy, the same can be said to be true of the state: having unnecessary spending, programs and agencies makes the government larger, more expensive and more intrusive than it needs to be. This fat should be trimmed away.

The trimming should, of course, not slice into the necessary parts—the vital organs, the muscles and the bones. To simply cut away at the government for the sake of making it small would be analogous to starving oneself (or cutting) just to get smaller, without any consideration of what impact it would have on health. Obviously, that would be both unwise and dangerous.

In the case of the body, it is fairly clear what is essential and when damage starts to occur. In the case of the government, there is considerable debate over what is essential and what should be sliced away. This is hardly surprising: the body is a matter of objective anatomy and physiology without political ideology at play. In the case of government, ideology and values are in conflict and one person’s essential program is another’s fat. That said, it is still possible to rationally assess programs, policies and such. Sadly, reason now cries herself to sleep each night: her sister, persuasion, gets all the dates now.

Thanks to the Republican’s government shutdown, the United States is getting a small taste of what smaller government is like. In an interesting coincidence, about the same time I learned that Michelle Bachmann was excited about the shutdown and saw it as achieving exactly what she wanted, I was reading an article in National Geographic about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Much like the United States, the DRC enjoys incredible natural wealth—it has valuable mineral resources that are critical to modern electronics. Unfortunately for the people, they have a government that seems to be little more than a corrupt shadow of a proper state. While the government of the DRC is a long way from the condition of the United States’ government, it does provide an example of what it is like to have a small government that does not interfere much (because it cannot) in such matters as “business” and the environment. The DRC is, to be blunt, close to hell on earth.

The situation in the DRC does provide us with a cautionary example of what can happen when the government is too weak and too small. I am not claiming that the United States will quickly descend into the situation of the DRC, but this sort of small government hell should be considered by those who believe in the small government heaven.

In my own case, it is exactly these sorts of real world situations that helped lead me away from anarchism. Though I still believe that governments can be rather evil and that government should be limited in the scope of its interference, I also believe that the state has an important role in maintaining order, safety and rights. The challenge is, obviously enough, a matter of balance: avoiding the excess that leads to totalitarianism while also avoiding the deficiency that leads to chaos.

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  1. Mike LaBossiere,

    “I have considerable sympathy for the Tea Party folks and the Republican politicians who honestly believe that “the government that governs least, governs best.””

    Okay, the world had 8 years of a Republican US government. In that time period, how much small government did we see? Shock’n’Awe, looked very big government from where I was standing. Cutting taxes…way to go……and then increasing spending.

    In other words, they were given ample opportunity to put their words into action, and they did the absolute opposite of what they said they would. And what can you say about a person like that. And there is something similar to say for the Tea Party.

    The Tea Party are fascists. That’s not a slur, that’s what they are. They are Nazis. Everything they say they really mean the opposite of. When they say Freedom, it’s the Fascist version of Freedom. That is the freedom to be a bully. The freedom to inflict tyranny. Hitler never tells his followers that he’s going to create a totalitarian dictatorship. No, he’s going to set the true German people free. The true German, the portly rural anti-intellectual, will not be dictated to by urban cosmopolites (rootless cosmopolites who really belong nowhere.) Hitler is one of them, and he will set them free. On Reich Kristallnacht, Hitler wasn’t out personally smashing up windows himself, no it was the German Tea Party. Good people set free. Democracy. (Hitler was democratically elected.)

    There is no dishonesty in either fascism or Nazism, or Tea Partying. But it is an example of how common words, that on a superficial level have the same meaning but they have an absolutely radically different meaning in their substantial practice.

    One of my favourite movie quotes of all time is from Passolini’s SALO. Because it explains what the actual ideology of the Tea Party, and others, really is. What the absolute intention is. What their Freedom is all about.

    The Duke: “We Fascists are the only true anarchists, naturally, once we’re masters of the state. In fact, the one true anarchy is that of power.”

  2. I think being “sort of an anarchist” is like being a “little bit pregnant” :wink:

  3. James P,

    “I think being “sort of an anarchist” is like being a “little bit pregnant” :wink:”

    No, it’s very broad church. Libertarians are anarchists. (but the problem with Libertarianism is they’re a little too broad in their own church – allowing people in who are clearly fascists. )

    Mike LaBossiere,

    “The situation in the DRC does provide us with a cautionary example of what can happen when the government is too weak and too small.”

    No, there are quite peaceful areas in the land of absolute freedom. Where the mines are. Mining companies have established their own islands of tranquility, within the state without a state. Where there are no laws, there can be no crimes. Private property, and private armies. And peace..at last.. as peaceful as a graveyard.

    Even Libertarians (the serious ones, not the loons) realise that now, with the shocking shift in wealth distribution over the last few decades, that the issue of super rich individuals, is as bad as, or even worse than the power of the state. That they can create their own states – or dictate the state.

    Currently, 110 individuals control 35% of the wealth of Russia*. Vladimir Putin is a dictator, but he derives his legitimacy from being the only alternative to rule by Oligarch – competing with one dollar, one vote is very difficult – and as Vlad has said, democracy is difficult – and so it is. The wealth distribution in Russia is not as bad as it has been. I believe in the 90s, less than 20 people owned 80% of all the wealth.

    *http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/oct/09/worlds-wealthy-where-russia-rich-list

  4. Mike,

    there seems to be a fairly significant problem with your DRC example in that you are focusing only on the state. If you look at governments like Robert Peele or even TR and you see functioning societies with much smaller governments than we have today. The DRC lacks our institutional history and unified identity. To bring up the DRC or (as I have more often seen) Somalia seems to be creating a false dicotomy either a strong state and strong civil society or weak state and weak society.
    What do you think a strong DRC state would look like, I’m guessing you would not support it.

  5. I’m a libertarian socialist. Proud to wear that label.

  6. Interesting that Anarchism was your youthful indiscretion. At 40 with children, I have finally come to anarchism (anarcho-capitalism actually) after a life-long allegiance to the democratic party. Following the Tea Party, Republican Party, or any other mainstream political movement only clutters the mind with false alternatives. One must seek out truth as one discovers it independently of the idiocy around us. Please try “A Market for Liberty” to understand why capitalist anarchism is the only stable option. freedomainradio.com addresses many issues such as enviroment, regulation, roads, etc. reasonably well (though his philosophical foundations are garbage). The problem of government as overseer of society is that it does this through racketeering (taxation) and other rights violation. And don’t read Ayn Rand either, she’s the only one who’s right. ;-)

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