Since the New Deal, advocates for a stronger federal government have used poor, working-class, and middle-class Americans to justify their crusade. The argument asserts that government offers the only protection against the predations of the rich and powerful. So to oppose a growing federal government is to oppose helping our most vulnerable citizens improve their lives.
This, anyway, has been the argument for the past eighty years.
Unfortunately, many proponents of limiting government contribute to the myth that they are uncaring. They do so by relying mainly on two arguments against big government: the cost argument and the constitutional argument. The first says that a huge federal apparatus creates wasteful government programs and imposes too great an economic burden on Americans. The second holds that the federal government—especially through the unelected administrative state—has broken through the limits on its authority that the U.S. Constitution put in place.
Both of these arguments are correct. Massive government programs are wasteful and impose huge economic costs on Americans, and many of them contradict constitutional provisions. But these arguments have not been sufficient to counter the claims of those clamoring for more and bigger government.
Ultimately, these arguments fall short because they do not go to the heart of the issue. They do not address the fact that the claims at the very core of the case for big government are simply false.
The truth is that big government often hurts the very people it purports to help—the poor, the working class, and the middle class. Actually, the problem is worse than that: big government frequently props up the rich, the powerful, and the politically connected.
Progressives’ common-person justification for big government finds its only legitimacy in the staying power of myth.
The Political Campaign for Big Government
From the Progressive era, through the New Deal and the Great Society, and right up to the present, many influential people have pushed for an expanded governmental role in all areas of social, cultural, and economic life. Calls for bigger government are now the predictable response to any social need or political issue. Big-government promises hold special appeal during times of emergency, when the public looks for an immediate savior. This emergency mentality led, for instance, to the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010—a law that substantially expanded, in ways that could not even be defined by the law, government regulation of the financial-services industry, from mega–Wall Street investment firms to small-town banks. Once the emergency passes, a more sober and rational public often reassesses the need for a bigger government—but by then, expanded government has been entrenched in law.
Recent experience bears out the constant growth of government. From 2000 to 2016, federal spending more than doubled, from $1.79 trillion to $3.85 trillion. Nearly 100,000 new federal rules have been issued since 1993, and the tax code is more than four million words long. According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, federal agencies in 2016 issued 3,853 regulations, while Congress passed 214 new laws. That’s 18 rules for every law enacted.
These numbers reflect a federal government that has broken free from constraints and that grows less and less accountable every year. The reach of the federal government has become so extensive that it is nearly impossible to define any limits to its power. Laws such as the Dodd-Frank Act and the Affordable Care Act are so complicated that they cannot even be understood without a platoon of lawyers, and the complexity of the tax code masks all the ways it benefits special interests and hurts ordinary Americans.
The Fundamental Argument Against Big Government
In my book The False Promise of Big Government, I do not reiterate the usual arguments against big government. The book does not examine the cost of big government, nor the debt it imposes, nor the taxes it requires, nor the burdens it places on the economy. Nor does the book discuss the constitutional arguments against government—namely, the threat to liberty and the violation of the constitutional design of limited government through a system of checks and balances.
Rather, my book addresses the very argument that is used to justify big government: that big government provides vital assistance to the average American. This argument is a myth. Instead of helping the average person at the expense of the wealthy, bigger government helps the politically powerful at the expense of the average person.
A strong and active federal government is necessary for various tasks, but when used as a panacea for society’s problems, it often hurts those most in need of help. As government has grown so powerful in such far-reaching ways, it has become more aligned with the centers of power in society. It has fostered cronyism rather than competition. It has treated people more like passive clients than as active citizens. It has replaced opportunity with regulations that reinforce the status quo. It has favored government bureaucracy over individual well-being.
The goal of my book is to correct the myths underlying the explosive growth of modern government. The book does not seek to slash the federal government indiscriminately; it advocates for a federal government that is prudent, more focused, less susceptible to the corruptions of power, better run, more cooperative with all the other institutions of civil society, and more responsive to the real needs of the common person. Most important, no person or group should ever be sacrificed at the altar of government growth
The book lays out six key points about big government that are too rarely heard:
- Big government caters to big power
- Big government breeds cronyism
- Big government is a tool of the elite
- Big government becomes its own end
- Big government backfires
- Big government crowds out civil society
Good intentions aren’t good enough. As author William Voegeli suggests in The Pity Party, big-government advocacy stems from a “strong preference for political stances that demonstrate one’s heart is in the right place” and “a relative indifference to whether the policies based on those stances, as actually implemented, do or even can achieve their intended results.”
But if we really want to help people, paying attention to results is essential. Too often, those who claim to speak for the “little guy” push for policies that don’t help—and often harm—the most vulnerable in our society. This is the fundamental point that proponents of a defined government need to understand and communicate if they ever hope to curtail the seemingly endless growth of government.
Patrick M. Garry, JD, PhD, is professor of law at the University of South Dakota. He is the award-winning author of several books. This essay is adapted from his new book, The False Promise of Big Government: How Washington Helps the Rich and Hurts the Poor.