A Case for Big Government?

Washington Matters

A Case for Big Government?

I know, I know. The overwhelming majority of Americans want small government, but hear me out.

It’s no secret that the American people are hopping mad -- so mad that dozens of incumbents, especially Democratic incumbents -- are going to be out of work come November, if not sooner. If you ask voters why they’re so angry, you’ll get an earful: big government, too many bailouts, too much deficit spending, too-high taxes and too little attention to the problems that matter.

Let’s take those one at a time, but truth is, they’re all connected, and all have the same issue at the root -- the proper role of government.

The appeal of the too-big-government argument is that each person defines for himself exactly what parts of government are too big. That’s also the problem with it. In my neighborhood, for example, there’s a fight over speed bumps. One anti-speed-bumper actually tries to rally opposition by arguing that the speed bumps are a manifestation of big government. But is a speed bump too much government when it’s on a street I use as a shortcut to the highway, but not too much government on the street my kids play on?

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What about the oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico? Extreme advocates of less government want Washington to handle defense and a few other necessities but to step aside on nearly everything else and let the private sector do its thing. But with a toxic slick already showing up on the coast, threatening the environment and the livelihood of large chunks of our population, are anti-big-government cadres telling the federal government to stay out, and not do everything it can to contain the disaster and provide relief and cleanup?


Apparently Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) wants Uncle Sam to pitch in. He’s criticizing the Obama administration for not doing more sooner and calling the Interior Department onto the carpet for its lax supervision of offshore drilling. He seems to want more regulation and more enforcement -- usually the very definition of the big government Issa and his party oppose.

In much the same vein, voters complain simultaneously about big government but insist that politicians aren’t spending enough time on what matters to the public -- creating jobs. But what can Washington do to create more jobs that wouldn’t be considered making government bigger? Cut taxes, you say? How much lower can they go? Collectively, we now pay only 9.2% of personal income in taxes -- including federal, state, property and sales taxes. That’s the lowest percentage since 1950.

Played out on larger canvases, the contradictions are what make it so difficult to get a grip on the federal budget deficit. A recession, big tax cuts and two unfunded wars started deficits accumulating, and the snowball grew with the bank bailouts, a second and deeper recession and government stimulus programs to try to get the economy growing again. Those who blame the deficit on big government tend to remember the bailouts and the stimulus, but they forget the role played by the tax cuts, the wars and the recessions.

All of this is not to say that there’s no need to get spending under control. We absolutely must. But how are we to do that when no one will give up his or her pet government project. Republican Sen. Richard Shelby calls himself a deficit hawk, but nevertheless went ballistic when Obama suggested turning over some NASA functions to the private sector. It would have meant the loss of some jobs in Shelby’s home state of Alabama. Democrats are no better: Ask Rep. Norm Dicks why he’s affectionately known back home in Seattle as Mr. Boeing.


To get out of the fix we’re in, politicians, voters, think tankers, academics, the media and pseudo-media need to quit focusing on whether or not government is too big and instead think honestly about what we really want and need government to do for us and how we can pay for it. It will mean less government in many instances, but we can’t ignore the need for government to do the things most Americans want done -- and want done right.