A friend recently asked me an interesting question. In a nutshell, he said, “In a big country, does small government make sense?”
People have accused me of wanting to do away with the Federal Government and just live the rules established in the Constitution. Yes, it would be great, but due to human nature it is not possible.
It is because of human nature that our founders came up with the Constitution and the separation of powers. Because our founders were well read, educated, and experienced people of the world they understood the need for limited government and the need for checks and balances.
We did not start with a big government; it grew to be a big government over time. One might say it is not big government that is the problem; it is expanding government that is the problem.
The danger from Government agencies is unchecked growth over time. The Department of Education is a great example. DOE became a cabinet level position in 1979. It is considered the smallest of the cabinet-level departments with 5,000 employees. The Department of Education was not envisioned in the Constitution because it was understood education was the responsibility of the local community. It was only after the substantial increase in government activism, starting with the FDR administration, that it ever occurred to people to make the Federal Government a player in public education. Education, for the most part, is not better after the Federal Government became involved. Effectiveness is never the issue; generally, each government agency finds ways to expand their powers.
The idea is not to single out the DOE, there are others which fit the same thought process which brings us an ever expanding Government. Among those Federal Agencies, born from an interest in expanding the Federal Government are the Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, Department of Commerce, Department of Labor and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In most instances a case was made that it would be more “fair” if the Federal Government intervened to make outcomes more equal.
If the government had come up with a Department of Education and the department had worked in conjunction with states to find the best textbooks, explore the best teaching methods, and set standards for training, it would have been helpful. The staff of 50 or 60 consultants could have made a huge difference in education. Notice they would have no rule-making powers. Also notice, it would not have grown to 5,000 people.
The entire system of government is designed to grow, to expand influence, and to create rules monitored by other bureaucrats. There is not an occasional review, every few years, asking if the agency is still necessary and if it is giving us a good return on our investment. Who knows of a government agency sending a note to the budget committee saying they would need less money in the coming year? Has an agency ever volunteered that they had fulfilled their goals and were no longer needed? Effectiveness is disregarded in favor of the test of fairness and equal outcomes.
The question is not can we survive with a small government; the question is do we need a huge government to survive? I say no. I say we can survive with a government (not counting security and military) about 10 percent the size of the government we have now. In California, during the Reagan years, there was a Grace Committee which came up with a list of items wasting money in State
Government. It was not immediate, but over a period of time all the efforts of the Grace Committee were defeated by State Government.
A large population does not require a large government. Any population requires a government which has a strict outline of its responsibilities and a system of checks and balances to prevent growth beyond those required boundaries.
My answer to the question about surviving with small government is yes, it would work, and it would be both less expensive and more effective. To walk back the government we have now would be met with a fierce battle. The public unions, the sheer number of federal employees and the political will to cut the government may be too much to overcome.
The question we might ask about government is not whether it is too large, but does the leadership have the courage to address the issue of size? I’ve heard citizens get the type of government they deserve. We are definitely getting the type of government we deserve. When we start demanding accountability and measuring the return on the investment of our tax dollars, we will no longer worry about the size of government. We will then have a government for the people instead of a social experiment run by the government.