Many libertarians and conservatives in the United States have developed the strange notion that all, or most, government beyond the bare minimum (that is, for security), is evil. Government, in other words, is slavery. In this view, a strange dichotomy has developed between a total embrace and a total rejection of the notion of government.
Anyone who views the government as having the potential to play a useful role in enabling human flourishing is oft accused of agreeing with the fascist sentiment, articulated by Mussolini: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
Now, this notion is hardly conservative; on the contrary, it is quite radical, and rejects hundreds of years of conservative thinking in the West. It stems, in part, from the radical heresy of Ayn Rand, who exalted the individual over the community to the point where society as a notion became superfluous and unnecessary:
Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.
This is, in fact, contrary to our very nature and evolution: “Our very survival as a species depended on cooperation, and humans excel at cooperative effort. Rather than keeping knowledge, skills and goods ourselves, early humans exchanged them freely across cultural groups.” And in fact, what is more traditional and natural than the tribe, and cleaving to one’s folk?
While many conservatives were, in fact, defenders of traditional political structures, including monarchy and aristocracy, many, especially from the Anglo-Saxon tradition, also favored a smaller government and liberty. Conservative defenders of government don’t like bigness for the sake of bigness, or a bloated bureaucracy. But they see a role for the promotion of the common wealth, which is why the word “commonwealth” pops up again and again in the British and American political traditions. This is why, in a recent post on our website, it was welcoming to see John Burtka III point out:
So, at the risk of a metaphorical lynching by fellow conservatives, is there a role for the federal government beyond commerce and security? I say yes, if there are common nationwide goals that “insure domestic Tranquility” and “promote the general Welfare.” Most people don’t take the time to digest the mission of the federal government in its entirety. The role of the federal government, as defined by the preamble of the Constitution, is to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
There you have it: the Founding Fathers themselves believed in using the government to promote the general welfare, in line with a tradition dating back to pre-Norman England. There’s a huge difference between effective, streamlined, and non-bloated government, and a bare-minimum government. As a former Ayn Rand supporter pointed out in an article, these are the fruits of government taking the back seat:
The greatest examples of libertarianism in action are the hundreds of men, women and children standing alongside the roads all over Honduras. The government won’t fix the roads, so these desperate entrepreneurs fill in potholes with shovels of dirt or debris. They then stand next to the filled-in pothole soliciting tips from grateful motorists.
On the other hand, governments organized the construction of the Pyramids, the Great Wall, Roman roads, and many other wonders of civilization. All built mostly by paid labor.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and The Diplomat.