Small Government Is Good for Some Things, Bad for Others. Big Government Is Good for Some Things, Bad for Others.


Ok, I will admit that this is a somewhat underwhelming place to start to find common ground for the political left and right, but I suspect that even this limited assertion may need justification in some quarters. At times the rhetoric of either side can admittedly sound like they’re emphasizing either big or small government as the ultimate good.  (Though, to be fair, even Reagan’s famous anti-government sound bite is more limited when put into its original context:  “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Emphasis added.) I’d like to restore a bit of Reagan’s subtlety (and boy, I never thought I’d say that!) to the discussion and move things away from the Grover Norquist I’d-like-to-be-able-to-drown-the-government-in-a-bathtub excesses. There are obvious situations where a smaller government works better than a larger government, and vice versa.

The clear advantage of a more localized government is that it’s more responsive to the specific needs of the community. For example, almost every tiny incorporated town has its own law enforcement and firefighting units. Although this is costly to duplicate these services across multiple townships, the idea is that speedy response is so crucial for these services that even small communities will pay for the added expense.

The obvious related point is that relying on many localized smaller government units is often more expensive than a larger, more centralized government. Although we rarely discuss this, this is self-apparent. The federal Internal Revenue Service is more efficient at collecting taxes than if we dispersed this function. Every large corporation understands this basic principle, that there are economies of scale. Once you build a mechanism for, say, tax collection, it doesn’t cost that much more to run it a lot. There’s simply no way that 50 different state departments of revenue can be as efficient as a single more centralized unit. We could potentially consider cutting down expenditures by expanding the federal government a bit and eliminating the jobs that are duplicated across 50 different tax revenue services (particularly in this electronic era when so much of the individual variation in tax schemes is taken care of by programmable state tax forms). I’m not necessarily advocating such a tax overhaul; I’m just using this as an example of the overall logic. One could think of an emphasis on more localized, smaller governmental units as a jobs program. After all, multiple small government units means broader employment. But we rarely talk about “small government” in this way: as a jobs program that is expensive but worth it (because it is more responsive to the subtleties of local environments).

And so once again I find myself talking about the way we talk about government/politics. The “big vs. small” government question is, like so many political topics, deeply imbedded in code words. “Big government” is typically a code word for the federal government, and “small government” is a code word for state/county/city/town authority. But this slippage allows us to expand government overall (and its expenditures) while we are shrinking “big” (read “federal”) government. The classic example of this is welfare reform under Clinton. By shrinking federal welfare programs, this pushed the burden onto the states. One response was to shift the emphasis onto disability programs (the number of people qualifying for disability has risen dramatically since the Clinton welfare reform), and so we have traded expenditures that are limited in time (welfare) for expenditures that extend for a lifetime. Again, my point here is not particularly about disability; my point is that we should view government as an ecosystem. Any upward or downward pressure on a single part (federal, state, local) can have an effect on the other portions of the system. You can biggen the government overall by reducing “big” government.

There’s another bit of sleight-of-hand involved in the dictum that small/localized government is more responsive to the community. Of course, that depends on who gets to count as the “community.” Having just made a fairly economic argument above, I’ll reiterate what I said in my previous blog post. I don’t think that the big/small government argument is primarily about money. I think it’s about a preference for localized authority or national authority. I believe that there’s often a simple test question that can predict whether you tend to favor small/localized government: would you have been well served by local government 60 years ago? Would you tend to trust that 1950s local government to have your best interest at heart? If so, you are probably more likely to want to return to that form of government.

This is another way to say that race matters. For black people, the local government in the 1950s was a point in recent times when oppression was viscerally felt (though federal redlining programs certainly made their palpable contributions to discrimination). The local government was the one you couldn’t trust to have your back.  It was governors and sheriffs who blocked the path; the federal government stepped in in very powerful and visible ways. The situation is similar for Hispanic Americans, too; the face of discrimination tends to be local (though the federal government is certainly doing more than its share lately). And so part of the racial underpinnings of left and right in America is a question of trust. Although “big government” can’t entirely be trusted either, it’s more trustworthy than the excesses of “small government.” (There’s a similar racial divide in attitudes toward whether the police can be trusted or whether they are suspect. Law enforcement, as noted above, leans local.) This isn’t ancient history; it’s fairly recent, and there has been little in recent history to boost the trust of people of color in localized authority.

Progress in the legal status of races is an obvious example of how the federal government can quickly implement change for the good. (One could certainly argue that the top-down implementation of Brown v. Board wasn’t exactly quick – in fact, it’s still ongoing – but implementing change from the ground up in every school system in America would be unimaginable) It’s hardly the only example, though (for those on the right who are tired of the left constantly returning to the civil rights era). One of the things that a strong federal government is good at doing is enacting minimum standards for living: the minimum wage law, for instance. Although the raw economics of supply and demand would insist that no minimum is needed, such federal laws protect against the excesses of employment and labor. Therefore a town whose politics is dominated by a single employer cannot reduce the cost of labor as much as the industry might like. The federal government limits the possible mistreatment that local authority is capable of, particularly when dealing with those who are not seen as a valued part of the “community.”

One of the biggest achievements for the Republicans in recent decades comes from their understanding that so much of politics is indeed localized. Concerted efforts to put Republicans on school boards, city councils, and other relatively boring governing bodies have been enormously successful, while too many Democrats have focused their hopes on a string of top-down rulings from the Supreme Court to protect their rights and privileges. And this battle continues today. Only a few years ago, I had dinner with a friend who was considering running for the local school board. My friend was approached by someone who encouraged the potential candidate, saying that “we have to make sure to keep the blacks off the board.” My friend said nothing, and to my shame, neither did I (my only excuse was shock). I was astonished at the brazen openness of acknowledging that certain members of the community should not be represented and the assumption that we were all united in this. Pardon me for feeding the fears of black people, but it’s not paranoia. This shit is still going on, and nice liberal white people like me are complicit.

I’ve been talking about the comparative advantages of “big” and “small” government, but there are also comparable disadvantages. An emphasis on local government opens up many more opportunities for corruption; a larger centralized government maximizes the damage possible by any single instance of corruption. Having many local government units multiplies the number of places where graft, favoritism, and nepotism can enter. As someone who grew up in a small town, I can testify that “who you know” is an incredibly powerful advantage in a community. Having many local police officers opens up multiple opportunities to exert illegal influence on how laws are enforced. People may bemoan the strictures of dealing with the federal government, but having to adhere to federal policies and procedures limits the reliance on “who you know.” Standardized bidding for government contracts opens up possibilities for those who aren’t so cozily on the inside (again, it seems to me that how well you would have been treated by local government 60 years ago is a good litmus test. If you would have benefited from a system of “who you know,” you not so surprisingly think we should emphasize local government. If you would have been excluded from the closed circle of local influence, you are less likely to think of small government as benevolent). The system is hardly flawless, and yet the American federal government is remarkably low in graft and corruption compared to many other nations.

A large federal program, however, does magnify the impact of corruption and ineptitude far past the local level. A strong centralized government can do considerable damage. Everyone’s favorite example of this is the Soviet Union’s unitary, top-down implementation of horribly misguided agricultural policy, which nearly ravaged the food supply in the entire USSR. Regardless of how bad nepotism, incompetence, and corruption is at the local level, there’s a limit to how far its influence can extend. I can see the sense in opposing a large, strong, federal government under a “first, do no harm” mentality. But once again I think it’s useful to think of governance as an ecosystem. If we shrink federal governmental influence, this spreads the opportunity for local governments to favor some people over others. The question is: in what situations are we best served by “big” or “small” government?

My own preference tends toward a trust in the larger federal government, and I do think “trust” is an essential factor in the “big” vs. “small” government argument. One factor that I think has swung in favor of supporting a strong federal government is the recent decline in journalism as a profession. As fewer and fewer journalists are employed and local news organizations shrink or evaporate, the difficult and boring job of keeping tabs on local government becomes harder. With fewer journalists devoted to the arduous work of monitoring city councils, county courthouses, and boards of education, it’s very hard to maintain the necessary oversight that keeps local government honest. One of the advantages of national programs is that they are centralized; a team of journalists can investigate a bureau and know that its influence will be widespread. A national program creates the opportunity for a big splashy news expose; smaller governmental units make for much smaller news stories. Given the state of the infrastructure of journalism at this moment, I think this is a particularly dangerous time for us to move toward more powerful local governments. To do so would be a move to shift power to where there is little likelihood that corruption will be exposed.

I think there is an important argument to be had about the tradeoffs of “big” and “small” government: an argument about money, about efficiency, about whose interests are represented, and about how oversight occurs. The starting point for that argument, it seems to me, is the simple, intuitive, yet seemingly rare admission that “big” and “small” government both have advantages and disadvantages.

(For those of you who have been wondering where the “Christianity” portions of this blog are, my next post will address the question “Why do religion at all?”)

4 thoughts on “Small Government Is Good for Some Things, Bad for Others. Big Government Is Good for Some Things, Bad for Others.

  1. Thanks for the comments on “the decline of journalism as a profession”. I had not thought about the possible impact on that front. Social media may counter this in some way, but certainly is prone to “gut reactions”. And is by no means a profession. Although, there are opportunities out there for content creators.


    1. I agree that there are opportunities here for content creators. My problem is that it’s hard, boring work to sift through financial records to see if graft or misappropriation is taking place, and my experience is that you typically need to pay someone to do hard, boring work. Journalism by unpaid volunteers is likely to be uneven, not systematic.

      I do think there are promising developments here. I’ve long thought that the academy can pick up some of this work by partnering with students. Students are used to doing tedious work for a grade, so they can provide labor while the university provides institutional stability. An interesting experiment is taking place just down the road from me with David Armstrong and the Georgia News Lab:


  2. The discussion of “government as ecosystem” is quite compelling, and I’ll have to remember to bring up the implications of the decline of journalism a bit more than I do already in my media classes when we get to that point in the semester.

    This moves a bit beyond your central focus here, but I want to talk about the traditional association of the Right with small government. I do wonder whether the current GOP supporters are indeed for “small government” at all. They seem to fervently support expansive federal efforts to hunt down and deport immigrants, while at the same time they are resistant to states that wish to relax drug laws in defiance of federal law. It seems more and more folks are really in favor of “whatever enforces my beliefs as law and I don’t particularly care how we get there.”

    Then again, on self-examination, perhaps I also fall into that trap a bit. While I would not exclusively allow the ends to justify the means (if I had to support someone morally repugnant to get my way I would be hesitant to say the least), I must admit I would be comfortable siding with either large or small government as suited the ultimate outcome for my beliefs. It’s just that, of course, I think MY beliefs are morally justified because they protect more than they oppress. I realize those I disagree with might feel the same.


    1. Yeah, I agree that inconsistencies infect most people’s political sensibilities. At times I think that calling attention to those inconsistencies provides a good opportunity for self-examination. At others, I wonder if we are no longer as concerned with inconsistencies, that identity politics remain supreme and it’s all a matter of defending your beliefs, not interrogating them. One of my blog’s assumptions is that I take seriously the claims of conservatism in hopes that we can find a way to talk to each other besides accusing each other of bad faith. We’ll see how that goes. I think your instinct is right, that moral values/beliefs may be at the heart of things in ways that we just don’t fully acknowledge. Although I’m trying to keep the two apart, the “religion” and “politics” portions of my blog may have some overlap around the concept of morality.


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