Everyone knows that Ronald Reagan famously said, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." But as Ramesh Ponnuru recently pointed out, there is a "less famous yet crucial beginning of that sentence": "In our present crisis."
Conservatives rightly hate nanny-state government and big-spending bureaucracy. But too often, the word "government" has become unfair shorthand for what is actually only bad or oppressive government.
Conservatives aren't anarchists, after all. We don't want Big Brother, but none of us should want to live in a Hobbesian state where every person is absolutely and entirely for himself, either. Instead, we believe in ordered liberty via limited government.
Certainly, the size and scope of government has increased over the years. But still, we shouldn't conflate all government with bad government. We need a functioning state, and yes, there is such a thing as a government that is too weak.
This is a lesson that goes back to our founding. And it's one conservatives should appreciate. Judging from their colonial garb and tri-cornered hats, Tea Party activists are fond of the Constitution and its Founders. So you might expect that they, of all people, would appreciate the importance of having a government that isn't laughably weak.
As Baylor professor and Patrick Henry author Thomas Kidd tells me, "Most of the major Founders became convinced that Americans needed a stronger national government to coordinate trade policy and protect against domestic and foreign threats."
Under the Articles of Confederation, the government was impotent. "Major decisions — declaring war and signing treaties — needed the approval of nine states," writes Richard Brookhiser in his book James Madison. Congress couldn't even tax, and "as a result, the United States was perpetually broke," Brookhiser adds.
To be sure, some patriots, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, opposed the Constitution precisely because they feared big government. But as Kidd points out, "the majority of the best-known Founders believed that the new republic needed a bigger, stronger government for the United States to survive and compete on the world stage."
"If men were angels, no government would be necessary," wrote Madison, who (in fairness) added, "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."
So, a natural question: What should a limited government do?
For starters, preserve law and order, ensure the rule of law, enforce contracts, provide for our defense — and yes, control the border. (I'm also partial to clean water, but that's just me.)
Max Weber said the government has a "monopoly on legitimate violence in society." This is needed to enforce law and order. Otherwise, whoever has the biggest gun — or the most brothers — takes your property.
"Government is the most common form of hierarchy," Robert Kaplan recently noted. "It is a government that monopolizes the use of violence in a given geographical space, thereby preventing anarchy. To quote Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English philosopher, only where it is possible to punish the wicked can right and wrong have any practical meaning, and that requires 'some coercive power.'"
But government functions don't just keep us safe, they also make us prosperous. Sure, overregulation can be a job killer. But consider the extreme alternative. If you believe that someone could steal your business if he wants to, then you are much less likely to start one. If you believe that someone can break a contract with you — or steal your invention — without fear of punishment, that might make it less likely that you will go into business or to invest in research and development.
In their 2012 book Why Nations Fail, economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson provide a largely free market argument for why some nations succeed. For example, Acemoglu and Robinson fault protectionist policies instituted to avoid the process of creative destruction as a primary reason some nations fail.
But interestingly, they also frequently cite a lack of a strong central government as a prime reason nations fail. For example, the authors lament Somalia's "lack of any kind of political centralization, or state centralization, and its inability to enforce even the minimal amount of law and order to support economic activity, trade, or even basic security of its citizens."
I can't imagine that any conservatives who decry government would prefer this sort of extreme chaos to our current, albeit imperfect, government.
So maybe the answer is to be more specific about our concerns with government. Attempting to do just that, Nobel Prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan distinguished between the productive state, the protective state, and the redistributive state.
Essentially, the productive state would constitute infrastructure like roads and bridges, the protective state would encompass the police, criminal justice, etc., and the redistributive state is obviously the entitlement state.
While most conservatives concede that we need some social safety net, they are mostly worried about the out-of-control growth of the redistributive state. And yet, too seldom is that distinction made. Instead, the criticism is usually directed at "government."
When it comes to government, a lot of conservatives are probably too obsessed with size. Grover Norquist famously wants to shrink government to such a small size that you can drown it in a bathtub.
But I'm not sure most Americans want that. And trying to force it via draconian cuts doesn't work, especially if they don't address the specific problem, such as the need for entitlement reform. "You can't make a fat man skinny by tightening his belt," observed John Maynard Keynes.
Whether you're a conservative who cares about preserving law and order, or a free marketer who appreciates the importance the rule of law plays in providing confidence and incentives to entrepreneurs, you're a fan of government. Stop pretending otherwise.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How to make the ultimate grilled cheese
- Dick Cheney's America is an ugly place
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The Hobbit: A disappointing set of movies, but a worthy set of prequels
- The liberation of Barack Obama
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- The age of miracles is over — even for the religious
Subscribe to the Week