What's So Bad about Big Government Anyway?

Besides the coercion and social harm.


In a recent conversation I used the term “big government,” clearly in a pejorative way. Another person spoke up to challenge me, asking, “What’s so bad about big government?” He went on to name some benefits that he supposed were possible only with a powerful state. We debated whether it was true, for example, that you couldn’t have old-age security without a government system like Social Security, but afterwards I wished that I’d had a more thorough answer to his question prepared.

Since then, I have thought about this question and have boiled the answer down to five points. But before we get to those points, we first need to have a good idea of just what we mean by “big government.”

“Big” isn’t usually a pejorative. There is nothing wrong with big airplanes, which can carry more people more safely and economically than can small airplanes. There is nothing wrong with a big serve in tennis, although I don’t like to see one coming at me. But there is no “right” size for airplanes or “right” speed for tennis serves, so we have no grounds for calling them “too big.” There is, however, a “right” size for government. The right size relates not to its budget or number of employees, but rather to its functions.

Right-Sized Government

The functions performed by a right-sized government are those things that are necessary to protect the life, liberty, and property of the people. The word “necessary” is important here. There are many things that people can do for themselves to protect their lives, liberty, and property, and these, therefore, are no business of government. The government shouldn’t buy and install locks on your doors. You can do that.

The right-sized government simply protects the right of people to live their lives as they choose, so long as their actions are peaceful. The title of one of Leonard Read’s books neatly encapsulates the boundary of government action: It should not interfere with “Anything That’s Peaceful.” Once government begins to do that, it becomes an aggressor against its citizens, compelling them to do things they would not choose to do (participating in Social Security, for instance) or preventing them from doing things they would like to do (such as building a home that’s not in compliance with every paragraph of the building code), and taking away their money to support things they would not support voluntarily (such as foreign aid). When a government starts to do those things, it has become too big.

Thinking back to my questioner, why shouldn’t government force people to do x, prevent them from doing y, or tax them to support z, as long as these objectives are “in the public interest”? That mind-numbing phrase has been the cover for untold human suffering. The truth is that there is no such thing as “the public interest.” Only individual human beings have interests. When people talk about “the public interest,” what they really mean is that some members of the public want something, and they want it at the expense of others. If, for instance, you hear a politician say that his national health insurance program would be “in the public interest,” he means that he and the backers of his plan want it, perhaps believe it is good for everyone, and don’t care that many other people disagree.

People want to and have a right to attempt to maximize happiness in their lives. Every time the government forces people to do things they would prefer not to do, prevents them from doing things they would like to do, or taxes them for things they don’t want, it reduces their ability to maximize their happiness. That is fundamentally wrong.

Big Government vs. Liberty

This leads me to the first of my five reasons why big government is bad. Big government is the enemy of liberty. Government actions that go beyond its defensive, rights-preserving functions necessarily entail some form of coercion that diminishes the freedom of at least some people to do what they would like to do. The bigger the government gets, the more it reduces liberty.

Examples abound. Consider the monopoly the government has conferred on itself in the delivery of first-class mail. Anyone who would like to peacefully contract with others to deliver certain kinds of written communications violates the law and faces prosecution and penalties for doing so. His liberty has been attacked so that the government’s postal workers won’t have to face competition. The government also has the arrogance to prescribe rules for the use of mailboxes. Even though my mailbox is on my property and I purchased it, federal regulations say that no one, but postal employees delivering mail, may put anything in it. I might prefer to allow others to put advertising in my mailbox rather than other places where they’re apt to blow away or get soaked, but big government says no.

Or think about government licensing requirements. In many cities, no one is allowed to go into the business of transporting people without a license, and licenses are unobtainable. Those caught violating the law, transporting people who desire the service and are willing to pay for it, are subject to prosecution and penalties. Their liberty to engage in a peaceful, beneficial transaction is attacked.

Big Government vs. Prosperity

The listing of government attacks on liberty could take up an entire year’s worth of The Freeman, so let’s go on. Big government is also the enemy of prosperity. This is so because big government invariably wastes resources.

Individuals strive constantly to make the best use of their resources—their time, money, and physical resources, from forests to carpenter’s tools, coal mines to computers. They carefully examine their options and decide how to allocate their resources to obtain the maximum benefit from them. Sometimes people make bad decisions, but they will change them as soon as it becomes evident that they brought undesirable results.

Self-interest produces the decisions that maximize our wealth and happiness. No one, not even the most ardent statist, likes having his freedom to choose how to spend his time and money usurped by others. Most people realize that turning decision-making authority over to others is apt to leave them worse off. What is true at the personal level is also true at the macroeconomic level, since the entire economy is merely the sum of untold individual decisions. The freer people are to make their own choices, the more prosperous the economy will be.

Big government, however, interferes with those decisions by diverting resources from the realm of individual decision-making and putting them in the realm of political decision-making. Political decision-making means that the use of resources will be determined by people who don’t own them and therefore do not stand to gain from being right or to lose from being wrong. (Being right means using resources in a way that best satisfies consumers.) Comparing private and political decision-making is like comparing how you drive your own car to how joy-riding teenagers would drive it.

Examples of wasteful government use of resources abound. Here is one of my favorites. In my hometown of Milwaukee there is a large federal office building, built in the early 1980s, that soaked up a lot of resources for which taxpayers had to foot the bill. Was there any need for the building? The General Accounting Office had issued a report showing no shortage of office space in downtown Milwaukee for the many federal agencies (themselves busy wasting resources). But politicians and the construction unions (guaranteed a lot of high-priced work under the Davis-Bacon Act) wanted the project, and that settled it. Resources went into an unnecessary office building rather than into whatever more useful projects they would have gone into had the government not interfered. A few people gained, but overall prosperity was lowered.

Big Government vs. Progress

Human beings have a natural inclination to search for better ways to do things. When we succeed, we call it progress. The discovery can be as simple as a housewife figuring out a faster way of getting her shopping done or as headline-grabbing as a breakthrough in medical technology. The quest for progress is universal.

When government is doing its proper job of protecting the rights of individuals, it indirectly assists progress by helping to protect innovators against attacks by those who don’t want them to try new and different things. In arresting and jailing the Luddites, the early nineteenth-century workers who violently opposed progress in textile production (power looms and factories threatened their old-fashioned ways of weaving cloth), the British government aided progress. When government protects liberty and property, progress is maximized.

Big government, however, often fails to protect liberty and property. Frequently special-interest groups that feel threatened by some innovation will lobby the government to do what they cannot legally do on their own, namely, interfere with the freedom of the innovators. As a political favor to those groups, big government often locks in the status quo with laws and regulations. Progress is thereby stifled.

Here again, there are many examples that could be cited. Consider building codes. Building codes specify, sometimes in minute detail, how a building must be constructed. The owner and his architect can usually decide cosmetic issues (although if the building has been designated as “historic,” they may not have freedom even here), but the structure, plumbing, wiring, and so forth must be “to code” even if the owner and experts whom he might consult agree that money could be saved or operations improved by doing something different. Builders have pointed out for years that building codes significantly raise the cost of construction while adding nothing to safety. Why do we have them?

Locking in the status quo on housing construction makes two politically potent groups happy: construction workers and code officials. Suggestions that building codes be liberalized or repealed send shivers down their spines. Building codes protect some of the jobs of the former and guarantee the jobs of the latter. To argue that codes drive up costs and get in the way of progress will elicit salvos of red-hot rhetoric about the “need to protect the public.” Code defenders conjure up horror stories about what might happen if people were free to construct buildings any way they pleased. But owners (and their insurers) have an incentive to construct safe, sound, durable buildings; the codes merely get in the way of their search for the best ways of constructing them.

Try this little thought experiment. Imagine that the British government had assisted the Luddites instead of thwarting them. Furthermore, suppose that every interest group that stood to lose by some innovation succeeded in obtaining government protection against it: candlemakers, carriage builders, ice cutters, and so on. What if, in other words, the government had locked in place the technology and social arrangements of 1800? How much shorter and poorer would people’s lives be? The answer is obvious. They would be much worse off. Big government, by making it easier and easier for our modern Luddites to obstruct progress through the proliferation of regulations and regulatory agencies, is doing that to us now.

Big Government vs. Harmony

When government is right-sized, it outlaws and punishes aggressive acts against people and their belongings. That raises the cost of aggression, thereby helping to deter it and channel people’s desire to get more for themselves into peaceful means. Cooperation and trade flourish in this environment. People come to realize, at least implicitly, that there is a natural harmony among their interests. (For an intriguing discussion of human cooperation, see Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue [Viking, 1997], and the book review in this issue.) Antagonisms and hatreds may not disappear, but they are minimized.

Big government, however, holds and inevitably uses the power to make some people better off at the expense of others. This creates hostility, bitterness, and sometimes violence where there would otherwise be none.

Big government’s labor laws have helped to perpetuate a false and counterproductive “us versus them” attitude among workers that gets in the way of harmonious labor relations. Many people have been injured and even murdered in strike-related violence that foolish labor laws indirectly encourage. “Affirmative action” laws create antagonism between members of the preferred and nonpreferred groups. In the United States hostility over affirmative action is largely a matter of simmering bitterness, but in other countries, as Thomas Sowell documented in Migrations and Cultures (Basic Books, 1996), it has led to much bloodshed. Social Security creates antagonism between older and younger people. “Public education” creates hostility between those who benefit from that enormous subsidy and those who are forced to pay for it. And so on.

Trying to get big government to interfere with the rights of others wastes resources, contributing to its attack on prosperity; but the greater loss, I submit, is in social harmony. An important but immeasurable component of the quality of life is a peaceful and happy frame of mind. By creating enemies where there would otherwise be none, big government changes many a peaceful and happy frame of mind to one that is angry and resentful. Some people want to ban products that might lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks, and other health problems. I think we’d accomplish more good in that respect if we banned big government as a risk to health and happiness.

Big Government vs. Morality

Right-sized governments do not try to make their people moral. Instead, they preserve the freedom of individuals to act as they think best to promote morality. Churches, civic groups, writers, and orators are free to try to persuade people to live what they regard as a moral life. Government should protect the right of all to enter the marketplace of ideas about morality but should draw the line at actions that force others to live by those ideas. Arguing that alcoholic beverages are evil and should not be consumed is fine; smashing bars and burning down distilleries is not.

One of the most important foundations of morality, and one that is reinforced by right-sized government, is the live-and-let-live philosophy. So long as a person violates no one’s rights—deprives no one of anything to which he is entitled—this philosophy says we may not coerce him. Live-and-let-live adherents may not approve of things that others do, but they do not believe they have any right to use force to make them behave differently. Might never makes right, and the willingness to renounce it is a hallmark of morality.

But big government undermines morality. It does so by seducing people into the belief that might does make right—provided that it is exercised democratically.

When big government stands ready to enact laws and regulations that take from some and give to others, and when politicians campaign by promising to do exactly that, it leads people to believe that coercion is morally proper. Do you want food, housing, education, or medical care provided to you at the expense of others? The leaders of big government say, “Don’t steal from others to get those things, but come to us and maybe we will do it for you.” Do you want to cripple your competitors? Politicians say, “Don’t burn down their businesses, but if you play the game right, I might cripple them with regulations.” Do you want to see more handicapped people with jobs? Legislators say, “You may not punish employers who prefer not to hire someone with a handicap, but come to me and perhaps I will do it for you.”

Prior to the advent of big government, when people wanted to accomplish something, whether personal enrichment or the realization of some lofty social dream, they knew they had to go about it through peaceful means. Big government encourages them to use politics to accomplish their objectives, thus legitimizing coercion. And with the legitimization of this variety of coercion, is it any wonder that many people conclude that coercion is permissible even without playing the political game first?

The Bill of Indictment

What is so bad about big government? My indictment of big government is that it is bad because it attacks liberty, prosperity, progress, harmony, and morality. Thanks to big government, we have significantly less of all of those good things than we would if we had been able to keep government right-sized.

Big government is cancerous. Like a cancer, it hurts the body and tends to spread, doing more and more harm as it grows. It is time for some radical surgery.


December 1997



George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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