In a 112-page tract published by Intercollegiate Studies Institute, law professor Patrick M. Garry rails against “The False Promise of Big Government.” According to Garry, “big government” is a human evil that we should oppose by all means at our disposal. The author imagines he’s telling us something new, declaring that his “key points” have been “rarely heard.” Among other sins, “big government breeds cronyism,” caters to big power,” is “a tool of the elite,” “becomes its own end,” “backfires,” and “crowds out civil society.” I wouldn’t dispute those charges, which to me no less than to Garry seem self-evident. It’s like explaining that cavities cause tooth decay. It would therefore be a good idea, everything being equal, for a dentist to remove them and fill the resulting space with a decay-resistant substance.
But of course having a dentist drill a cavity and then fill it with something decay-resistant is quite different from junking “big government.” Enough people adore that institution with all its flaws to have voted to steadily expand it for over 100 years. Does Garry believe he’ll change minds by repeating what multiple critics of an expanding welfare state, going back to the early 20th century, have already pointed out? Exactly what department of the federal government that we are told is hurting the poor and practicing cronyism does Garry want us to cut first? What about the Department of Education, which as an advisor to the Reagan administration I unsuccessfully urged the incoming president to abolish?
Contrary to his campaign promise, the supposed originator of the “Reagan Revolution” allowed that department to survive and superimposed on its sprawling bureaucracy Republican and neoconservative office-seekers. Those beneath the top level were civil service employees who it seemed from my conversations with them had only good things to say about “big government.” Garry’s object of attack gave these “civil servants” full-time employment and then allowed them to retire with considerable benefits. I noticed a similar lust for government jobs among the Reaganauts. Movement conservatives lined up readily for sinecures in the great national swamp circa 1981. Other things undoubtedly happened during the Reagan administration, like a tax cut, but I can’t remember being present at any “revolution” in government.
This brings me to my main point about pamphlets such as Garry’s, which bewail what they can’t solve. About 10 years ago I wrote an article for Austrian readers explaining that American politicians who say they’ll “get government off our backs” have no intention of keeping that promise. Their real plan is to provide favors for their donors at taxpayers’ expense and with a little luck maybe create a new agency to “help the people.” Moreover, those who vote for politicians inveighing against “big government” usually don’t expect them to reduce the size of government. What they’re voting for are Republicans who are expected to make a certain noise in order to distinguish themselves from Democratic candidates. Those who promise to “get government off your back” can be expected to vote for tax cuts but also for the procurement of more weaponry by the Pentagon, and in the past for expanded immigration in order to provide cheap labor for GOP donors. Saying that “the government is the problem” is music to the ears of many voters. But it hardly obliges the speaker to work toward significantly trimming, let alone rescinding, the existing welfare state.
Unfortunately, impotent or dishonest complaining has become a hallmark of Conservatism Inc., which engages in its own brand of virtue-signaling. Instead of deploring sexism and homophobia, professional conservatives scream against “big government,” which they insist hurts the poor and deprives us of virtue. This is meant to show one’s donors and followers that the speaker is clubbable and perhaps even fit for a post in a “conservative” think tank. One of the few times I ever agreed with a neoconservative is when Irving Kristol addressed the Philadelphia Society 30 years ago and told the audience that they’d better come to terms with the welfare state. Most of the auditors were horrified that anyone at their gathering would make such a statement. They were like European socialists before the First World War, who publicly called for a workers’ revolution but who quietly negotiated for posts in bourgeois governments.
Although I remain appalled by the inexorable advances of the system that Kristol came to celebrate, I remain impressed by how he described reality to inappropriately shocked listeners. Needless to say, if former congressman Ron Paul, for whom I voted more than once for president, had been in the audience and scolded Kristol for his acceptance of big government, his indignation would have been fully justified. But there were few such lions of courage whom I noticed mumbling over Kristol’s comments. And this causes me to ask: Why pretend you’re going to get rid of something that you’ve neither the power nor the will to abolish?
Postscript: I don’t want to leave the impression that I would try absolutely nothing to restrain the growth of the welfare state. Supporters of limited constitutional government should work toward modest, doable goals without claiming to be advancing what is no longer possible: e.g., phasing out civil service posts as their occupants retire. Nor should we give up on eliminating departments of government, starting with the Department of Education, which is now engaging in widespread social engineering as well endeavoring to centralize American public education. To whatever extent possible, I would try to abolish anti-discrimination laws, which have become a means by which government workers can control social behavior, including speech, in our commercial and what were once private associations. For a full list of what I think are at least possible directions for restraining what I call “the therapeutic state,” please see my Murray N. Rothbard Memorial Lecture, given at the Ludwig von Mises Institute on April 4, 2015.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.