The Silly Debate Over Big Government

Sloganeering only obscures the debate over the proper role of government.

It’s become fashionable these days -- especially with the rise of the Tea Party movement and the success of attacks on President Obama’s health care plan -- to assume that Americans, almost by nature, are against “big government.” I’m sure a poll testing that term would draw impressive numbers, with a very large majority insisting they prefer “smaller government.”

But what do those terms really mean? I couldn’t help shaking my head at the congressional hearings and the press coverage of Toyota’s safety problems, as lawmakers and commentators blasted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for failing to catch Toyota’s problem and do something about it sooner. But that requires a staff and -- yes -- regulations with enforcement behind them. How do you square hat with a call for smaller government?

Other recent reports have taken the federal government to task for newfound deficiencies in the E-Verify system, a computer database created to help employers check the legal status of job applicants. It needs to be faster, have more data input and more agents making it work. Sounds like big government to me.

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Obviously, “big” and “small” government are terms that mean different things to different people -- and at different times. The truth is, Americans aren’t against big government per se. They get angry when government does something they don’t want, but they get equally upset when government fails to do what they need.

It’s worth paying attention to what’s happening at the state level, where Americans are getting a strong taste of small government, and they’re far from thrilled with it. Much of the downsizing is a fiscal necessity as states try to cope with a huge budget crisis -- a fact of life that eventually will hit the federal government as well, whether we like it or not.

The states got some help with their fiscal woes from the federal stimulus last year (another example of big government often derided), but now the aid is running out. Hardest hit are schools at all levels. About 300,000 education jobs on the K-through-12 level were saved by the stimulus last year, but layoffs are more likely in the fall. Public colleges and universities also got crucial help from the stimulus, but now they’re getting hit very hard. With less money from state legislatures, many schools are raising tuition, laying off teachers, limiting class offerings and accepting fewer students. That’s going to make it even harder for the U.S. to be competitive in global markets, and businesses are genuinely and legitimately upset that a bad situation is only going to get worse.

Smaller state government is also having an effect on more down-to-earth services. In Arizona, for example, the highway department, facing a $100 million shortfalls, closed 13 of the state’s 18 highway rest stops, no small burden given the long distances between stops in very rural areas. Residents are outraged, and protests may force a reversal. The American Trucking Association is also objecting, saying the lack of rest stops is a series safety issues. Some Arizonans say they would have preferred a user fee instead of closures, but lawmakers are afraid that any kind of revenue raiser will cost them in the next election.

When severe snowstorms hit much of the country, residents in many areas were similarly outraged at the slow pace of snow removal. In the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington, for example, which aren’t equipped for the unusually harsh winter we’ve had, residents bombarded local officials with complaints and demands. None would have said they wanted big government -- at least not in so many words -- but they clearly wanted a government big enough to respond to the unexpected events.

Social service programs are often derided by those who hate big government, but Americans are more dependent on them than ever before. The Washington Times reported last week that without unemployment benefits, food stamps, welfare and other government help, U.S. household income would have plunged by $723 billion last year, instead of the $167 billion drop reported by the Commerce Department. The article went on to quote economists saying it’s worrisome that government support was so critical to keeping the economy afloat, but what was the alternative?

In short, we want the government to be there when we need it, whether it’s to rescue the financial system or to plow snow covered streets. But when government is inefficient and wasteful -- or doing something we don’t believe is wise or critical -- then it’s a different story.

Despite the fun that commentators and politicians are having, the argument about big government vs. small government is ridiculous and a waste of time. Obama likes to say that Americans want “smart government,” not big government or small government. It’s a clever slogan, but it’s also true. We also want a “smart” debate about how to get to that point, but so far we’re not getting it.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter