How big is too big?

In government, as elsewhere, less is actually more

Issue: "Bush picks Cheney as VP," Aug. 5, 2000

"Why are you guys at WORLD so sure," my friend asked me a few days ago, "that big government is always bad? Sometimes the task is so big you need a strong government to pull it off."

My friend has devoted much of his life to the work of racial reconciliation. He believes devoutly that had the federal government not flexed its muscle during the Civil War-maybe even pressing the limits of constitutionalism-the evils of slavery would not have been overthrown. And he believes that if the same federal government, a whole century later, had not offended millions of strict constitutionalists with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and similar legislation, restaurants, motels, and other businesses might still be routinely be turning away blacks and other minorities.

Those, of course, are fighting words for folks who believe in a strictly limited government. I have many conservative friends who insist the United States might well have done away with slavery and then set aside overt racism in the public sector without simultaneously trading in important guaranteed constitutional freedoms. It might have taken a little longer, these friends argue, but in the end we would have had both freedom for black people and an intact Constitution. The wait, such folks suggest, would have been worth it.

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Sometimes, of course, we haven't waited for goodies we so much coveted. It's altogether possible, if we had been a bit patient, that the big boom of the post-war 1950s would have forced states and cities to build their own system of freeways and superhighways to accommodate all the growth that occurred. But instead of letting such a system take shape on a laissez-faire basis, our society decided that such a huge task would be better coordinated by the federal government. The result was the interstate highway system, a habit so integral to modern life that it's hard to imagine being without it.

A little less visible but perhaps even more profound in its impact on modern life was the G.I. Bill of the late 1940s. Through it, Uncle Sam guaranteed a college education-and therefore the promise of better jobs-to millions of young people who had served in the military. Those better jobs (coupled with G.I. housing benefits) worked wonders in pumping up an economy destined to become the most robust in the history of the human race. And simultaneously, a system of higher education was established that is, for all its defects, the envy of university students around the world.

Both the interstate highway system and all those G.I. benefits occurred because someone said: "Here's a job way too big for anyone but the federal government." And we've done that through the years with hundreds, if not thousands, of other assignments.

I have two reasons for thinking Americans over the next generation should be cautious about following that pattern.

The first is that God warns us in the Bible that a government big enough to give us everything we want will also be big enough to oppress us in ways we don't want. 1 Samuel 8 is a classic argument for all time-from the heart of God himself-about what happens to people who yearn for the security of a big and powerful government. Their taxes go up to support big military programs and other endeavors, they lose their children to the whims of those who are governing, the firstfruits of their productivity go to the government, and they end up asking for relief. A more apt picture could hardly be imagined.

My second reason for caution about big government is pragmatic. It just doesn't work. That shouldn't surprise us, since God himself warns us it won't work. But the record also speaks loudly and clearly. From welfare to education to air-traffic control (just to pick three obvious examples), the federal government messes up as much as it does well. However well intentioned, bigness almost always leads at least to clumsiness, and usually to incompetence as well.

I won't forget that occasionally I will point with gratitude to some of the good things big government has accomplished. And my friend points, with good reason, to a number of third-world countries where governments are so weak that gangs of marauders run unchecked, where bribery and corruption face no penalties, where systems of justice are virtually nonexistent. "Seeing that should make us thankful," he says, "for a government strong enough to give us stability and peace."

I hear that call, and I take it seriously. I do not want to fall into the trap of disdaining all government, just because it has sometimes gotten carried away with excess. The New Testament is clear in claiming a proper and important role for government-and in insisting that God's people maintain respect for those who lead it. They are, the Bible says, God's own instruments.


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