Here’s how the argument usually goes. The right screams about how government has gotten too large and is sticking its nose in every corner of our business. The left responds that it’s easy to complain while merrily benefiting from all that government; “enjoy your safe food and roads,” they smirk. Conservatives could help their side of the debate quite a lot by reframing it just a bit more like libertarians. (Well, like libertarians theoretically would, if they weren’t so caught up in the same “government is too big, full stop” trope that the right usually takes up.)
Instead of relentlessly harping on small government we need to be clear on what the purpose of government is, and what it doesn’t have to be. We need and all benefit from laws that ensure fairness, equal opportunity, and a level playing field. We need laws which, for example, require companies making food to actually meet society’s minimal expectations about it, such as, you know, it’s actually OK to eat it, it won’t kill you (right away at least), the label is not an outright lie about what’s in it, that sort of thing. This legislated fair play allows companies to compete more effectively. If Acme Inc. is selling you high quality whole wheat bread, but filling it with much cheaper sawdust, how can the GoodBread.com, who is actually using more expensive ingredients, compete? In this case keeping a level playing field has the added advantage of encouraging safe a food supply. Few are sensibly arguing in favor of lifting such laws or their enforcement when they push for small government.
The same goes for all manner of government activities, nearly all of which have to do with ensuring a functioning infra-structure and system in which private enterprise can innovate and excel. That is, the real role of government, and it’d be hard to find a rational objection to that role, even from the smallest government aficionados.
The story isn’t so cut and dried for the services side of government. For each an every government service, somebody, maybe a liberal, just as likely a conservative, is certainly very happy to be receiving it. Whether we’re discussing corporate bail-outs or personal welfare, the happy recipient, even the ones demanding a smaller government, is usually referring to all those other services. But, as convenient and seemingly necessary as every service is to someone, there is nearly always an inherent downside, often, a limitation on individual freedom or privacy. We may all agree to accept this downside; it’s better for the greater good, for example, but we must at least acknowledge the limitation.
How can services limit freedom? For starters, they cost money. Everything we do for people, “necessary” or not, costs money and that’s money that you and me worked hard to earn, often giving up on our freedom to
sit at home watching TV do something productive in order to earn it. Maybe it makes sense to spend this money in the long run, but that doesn’t make free. Furthermore, government services are rarely offered with no strings attached. Prospective recipients must qualify, provide personal information to prove it, and then engage in ongoing proscribed activities to make sure they still deserve it. Unemployment benefits are a good example. For money that was paid in by your employer and your own salary, you still have to jump through a range of hoops, week after week, to get it.
Services are almost never offered equally to everyone, and certainly not equally used by everyone. Invariably, that means you’re paying for something you don’t want and might not even agree with. Think about the current controversy in the United States about funding contraception. Ensuring young people have access to birth control is nearly a public good, yet Catholics are pretty sure that doing so forces them to pay for limitations on their cherished religious freedom.
Services that really are so-called public goods (the linked definition above is worth reading: true public goods must be non-exclusionary and non-rivalrous—not an easy test to satisfy) are the realm of government. The market really can manage the rest, provided the government is there to ensure a level playing field. Danger to this delicate balance comes when the government provides a service. It’s not only responsible for fair protection, but it is simultaneously competing in the market. That means we’re all paying for one of the competitors while the other is left to fend for itself, and how is that really a fair game?
Plenty remains to be debated in discovering which services remain as truly public goods. Do we all benefit from better health care, or public school education? Is it worth it to force others to pay for these services even though they don’t receive any direct benefit that they can see? The subtlety and quantity of these cases is endless. All the more surprising then, that we spend so much time over-simplifying this argument to big versus small government. Doing so makes hypocrites out of conservatives and naive dreamers out of liberals who can’t pay for it all. But it brings no one closer to a solution.