The scale of destruction and human devastation that Superstorm Sandy brought against the northeastern United States has left many citizens grateful for governments that are big enough to handle public threats of this magnitude. Defenders of “big government” feel vindicated. But their satisfaction is unjustified on this point.
The debate between conservatives and liberals, especially in the Obama years, is often reduced to a dichotomy between big and small government, leading those on the left to think that their conservative opponents want no government at all. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist fed that fear when he said his goal was to make government so small you could drown it in a bathtub, an ambition that’s both un-Christian and unconstitutional.
The right size of government must be understood in the context of government’s limited purpose and scope. God gives us government for our good (Romans 13:4), but not every good. For some goods he gives family, friendships, church, and personal responsibility, including joining with others in private organizations to accomplish larger good works.
But the things government is called to do—e.g. defense, the interstate highway system, and natural disasters so large as to be national disasters—are awesome responsibilities of grave public consequence. To deliver on these public goods, government must have power sufficient to do the task. In other words, big tasks require big power.
Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper No. 70 wrote, “A government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” Hamilton called this capacity for the work of government “energy.” He wrote, “Energy in the executive is a leading character (sic.) in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks.” He also mentioned the steady administration of the laws, and the protection of property and liberty.
But in addition to energy sufficient for the legitimate and vital tasks of government, Hamilton stressed the importance of “safety.” The power to secure the people is also the power to enslave them. The power to protect liberty is also the power to steal it. Our Founders deeply appreciated this problem, and the Constitution they designed, with a federal government having only limited, enumerated powers but fully empowered to execute them for the public good, is their remedy for it. When liberals talk about big government they mean just the opposite: government empowered to do anything it thinks is good … no limits apart from the Bill of Rights. But our constitution provides many more firewalls against tyranny.
That sort of “big government” government would overwhelm the Bill of Rights. It would surely be big enough to respond effectively to any hurricane. But it would be a national disaster all of its own that would devastate our liberties and with them our human dignity. Superstorm Sandy has shown us the need for big power in government. But all power must be safe power for those it is designed to help. Otherwise it’s the friend that makes enemies unnecessary.