A Philosopher's Blog

On Having Less Government

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 14, 2013
Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my college days, I embraced the philosophy of anarchism. As I saw it then, the state was the main cause of human suffering through oppression, war, violation of natural rights and its other ills. While individual criminals and small criminal groups could do bad things, they could not match the capacity for evil of the full state. Despite the wildness of youth, I mainly accepted the relative mildness of Thoreau’s anarchism. I did not advocate violence and hope that social change could come about by evolution rather than bloody revolution. I also did not drink the Marxist Kool Aid—I saw it as just another dubious religion with a problematic metaphysics.

While much of my commitment to anarchism was philosophical, honesty compels me to admit that some (or perhaps most) came from my rebellious nature and the insolence of youth. Since I did not like being bossed around by authorities (which I discerned to often be immoral and more often incompetent), anarchism provided a nice theoretical framework for my youthful rejection of authority. Oddly enough, I was not a chaotic individual: even then, I was a person of strict discipline (thanks, perhaps, to running) and very orderly. As such, I was not against order, but against immoral, irrational and ineffective authority.

Because of my youthful experimentation with anarchism, I have considerable sympathy for the Tea Party folks and the Republican politicians who honestly believe that “the government that governs least, governs best.” Those that are merely trying to hang on to the Tea stained tiger, well, they get no sympathy from me.

When these folks cry out that taxes are too high, that the state regulates too much, and that the state is violating our rights, I feel that old spark of anarchism flare up in my soul. However, when I look at the facts of what they are complaining about, that spark typically dies. As a former anarchist, I cannot get outraged that people are not allowed to pollute the environment as much as they would like. I cannot get mad that there have been some feeble attempts to put in regulations regarding what wrecked the economy. I also certainly do not see passing restrictive laws regarding women’s reproductive rights as “small government.”

That said, I do like the idea of smaller government—in the same sense that I like the idea of keeping myself lean. As a runner, I know that extra pounds of fat slow me down. As someone who knows a bit about health, I know that extra pounds of fat are unhealthy. By analogy, the same can be said to be true of the state: having unnecessary spending, programs and agencies makes the government larger, more expensive and more intrusive than it needs to be. This fat should be trimmed away.

The trimming should, of course, not slice into the necessary parts—the vital organs, the muscles and the bones. To simply cut away at the government for the sake of making it small would be analogous to starving oneself (or cutting) just to get smaller, without any consideration of what impact it would have on health. Obviously, that would be both unwise and dangerous.

In the case of the body, it is fairly clear what is essential and when damage starts to occur. In the case of the government, there is considerable debate over what is essential and what should be sliced away. This is hardly surprising: the body is a matter of objective anatomy and physiology without political ideology at play. In the case of government, ideology and values are in conflict and one person’s essential program is another’s fat. That said, it is still possible to rationally assess programs, policies and such. Sadly, reason now cries herself to sleep each night: her sister, persuasion, gets all the dates now.

Thanks to the Republican’s government shutdown, the United States is getting a small taste of what smaller government is like. In an interesting coincidence, about the same time I learned that Michelle Bachmann was excited about the shutdown and saw it as achieving exactly what she wanted, I was reading an article in National Geographic about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Much like the United States, the DRC enjoys incredible natural wealth—it has valuable mineral resources that are critical to modern electronics. Unfortunately for the people, they have a government that seems to be little more than a corrupt shadow of a proper state. While the government of the DRC is a long way from the condition of the United States’ government, it does provide an example of what it is like to have a small government that does not interfere much (because it cannot) in such matters as “business” and the environment. The DRC is, to be blunt, close to hell on earth.

The situation in the DRC does provide us with a cautionary example of what can happen when the government is too weak and too small. I am not claiming that the United States will quickly descend into the situation of the DRC, but this sort of small government hell should be considered by those who believe in the small government heaven.

In my own case, it is exactly these sorts of real world situations that helped lead me away from anarchism. Though I still believe that governments can be rather evil and that government should be limited in the scope of its interference, I also believe that the state has an important role in maintaining order, safety and rights. The challenge is, obviously enough, a matter of balance: avoiding the excess that leads to totalitarianism while also avoiding the deficiency that leads to chaos.

 

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  1. WTP said, on October 14, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Because of my youthful experimentation with anarchism, I have considerable sympathy for the Tea Party folks and the Republican politicians who honestly believe that “the government that governs least, governs best.” Those that are merely trying to hang on to the Tea stained tiger, well, they get no sympathy from me

    False dichotomy combined with straw man. Again, I give you Bestait:

    “Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”

    ― Frédéric Bastiat, The Law

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 14, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Good article. The US federal government has been bloated by wasteful, unnecessary spending for many years, and it’s long past time to trim the fat, so to speak. Unfortunately, the federal government has no desire to trim the fat, and is, in fact, wasting and spending unnecessarily more now than ever before, and has plans to further increase, rather than decrease, this fat — forever — into the future. The federal gravy train that is our militaristic federal government is one of the few job sectors in the USA that pays a far more than adequate living wage. And many peoples are striving to climb aboard that corrupt gravy train.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 15, 2013 at 1:32 pm

      The Republicans did make a reasonable point when they pointed out that once people get an entitlement, it is rather hard to take that away. This is true whether it is social security, Obamacare or largess for the large corporations.

      To be fair, though, one person’s pork can be another person’s legitimate spending. The challenge is figuring out what is true pork and finding a way to get rid of it.

  3. Nal said, on October 14, 2013 at 11:25 am

    What is all that running doing to your knees? Cycling is aerobic and kinder to the knees.

    • WTP said, on October 14, 2013 at 3:29 pm

      Yes, but it’s even harder to imagine running down deer through the forest on a bike, unlike the primordial man Mike feels beating within him. Granted fortified with Nikes instead of moccasins, but that’s a mere quibble.

      https://aphilosopher.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/hunter/

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 15, 2013 at 1:34 pm

      Actually, research now shows that running is good for the knees, joints and such. While runners do get running injuries (usually overuse), runners (as a group) are much better off knee-wise than folks who do not exercise.

      Cycling is also good, although I have had friends hit by cars-that happens much more often to cyclists than runners.

  4. WTP said, on October 14, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    I cannot get mad that there have been some feeble attempts to put in regulations regarding what wrecked the economy.

    Like Mithridates, I can only take this crap in tiny chunks. Mike has no more idea what “wrecked the economy” than my dog knows what caused the thunder. And again, with the FALSE dichotomy and straw man argument. I shall now return to my regularly scheduled life so the government can tax my productivity to support Mike and his minions.

  5. T. J. Babson said, on October 14, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    Mike, I think in all honesty you should admit that the Dems are far more excited about the government shutdown than the Republicans are.

    They are like sharks that smell blood in the water.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 15, 2013 at 1:29 pm

      Some Democrats might see this as a chance for a political windfall. The shutdown seems to be mainly sticking to the Republicans and this might payoff for the Democrats in the next election cycle.

      Unfortunately, there is an alarming tendency to be willing to tear at the country to try to make personal political gains. This, and not the poor and powerless, will have a major role in the decline of our empire. Self interest is fine, at least when it is tempered by service to the common good.

      • magus71 said, on October 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm

        Culture is more important than government. The Left did everything it could to destroy our culture, so now all we have left is government.

        • magus71 said, on October 15, 2013 at 9:23 pm

          An example being my office: I have two types of Soldiers that work for me: Those that get it done on their own (culture) and those that get it done by NCOs having to crush them into submission (government). Guess which ones are better to have around? Those that require the crushing take up my time and take away from other productive things I could get done.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 16, 2013 at 1:50 pm

            Going back to Aristotle, only a very few people do what is right because they are ruled by reason and fine ideals. Most have to be compelled by the power of the state. Check out the Nicomachean ethics.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 16, 2013 at 1:48 pm

          Hobbes and Locke would disagree with you.

          • WTP said, on October 16, 2013 at 1:53 pm

            Perhaps Hobbes and Locke were wrong in this regard? Appeal to authority. Isn’t this a fallacy? Where is the reason?

          • magus71 said, on October 18, 2013 at 7:07 pm

            How did the Pilgrims make it work? I’m not saying government is not important, but a moral people is more important. Government cannot keep a rampaging populace in check. You misunderstand cause and effect when it comes to why some countries work well. Government is a tool of the people; it can only serve them well, like a car, if it is well maintained.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 19, 2013 at 5:05 pm

              They had the natives to teach them how to raise crops.

              I do get why some countries work well. History lays this out fairly clearly in practice and folks like Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, and Aristotle law out the theoretical underpinnings for what makes a state work. Or fail.

  6. WTP said, on October 15, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Again with the small doses….

    Thanks to the Republican’s government shutdown, the United States is getting a small taste of what smaller government is like. In an interesting coincidence, about the same time I learned that Michelle Bachmann was excited about the shutdown and saw it as achieving exactly what she wanted, I was reading an article in National Geographic about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Much like the United States, the DRC enjoys incredible natural wealth—it has valuable mineral resources that are critical to modern electronics. Unfortunately for the people, they have a government that seems to be little more than a corrupt shadow of a proper state. While the government of the DRC is a long way from the condition of the United States’ government, it does provide an example of what it is like to have a small government that does not interfere much (because it cannot) in such matters as “business” and the environment. The DRC is, to be blunt, close to hell on earth.

    TJ, Magus, can you count the fallacies in this paragraph? Were either of you shameless enough to use such logic, would you not expect Mike to be all over you on this? Of course he avoids the words “slippery slope”, but shoe on the other foot wouldn’t you expect as much?

    • T. J. Babson said, on October 15, 2013 at 5:12 pm

      I guess Mike really believes that if we trim the size of government 10% it will be just like living in the Congo.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 15, 2013 at 5:22 pm

        Not at all. I write “While the government of the DRC is a long way from the condition of the United States’ government, it does provide an example of what it is like to have a small government that does not interfere much (because it cannot) in such matters as “business” and the environment. The DRC is, to be blunt, close to hell on earth.” The Congo is an extreme example of what happens when the government is only effective in being corrupt. As such, it serves as a warning about what is actually possible. North Korea is a good example of what happens when government becomes too invasive (and evil…and crazy).

        I think sorting out the proper size of the state and its proper duties is a rather important problem. Getting it right makes a stable, just society much more likely. Getting it wrong all but guarantees trouble. It is, in some ways, analogous to the health of an individual. Just as with health, this is not a matter that should be settled by rhetoric and unthinking ideology.

        Much like Hobbes, the possibility of chaos worries me. Like Mill, the possibility of tyranny also worries me.

        • magus71 said, on October 15, 2013 at 5:30 pm

          Chaos. Right. Want chaos in America? Go where the most food stamps are handed out. Go where the enabling and pandering are most evident. Go to Detroit.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm

            One cause of Detroit’s fall was rampant corruption and ineffective leadership. That is, bad and ineffective government. I’m against that.

            • WTP said, on October 16, 2013 at 1:52 pm

              One cause of Detroit’s fall was rampant corruption and ineffective leadership. Note again the passive voice. Rampant corruption and ineffective leadership by whom,/i>?

        • WTP said, on October 15, 2013 at 5:58 pm

          “While the government of the DRC is a long way from the condition of the United States’

          Well if that’s your emphasis, let’s try this…

          Thanks to the Obama’s leadership (or lack thereof), the United States is getting a small taste of what big government socialism is like. I was reading in the history books about Communist China, the USSR, Cambodia, Vietnam, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany, yes even Nazi Germany, etc, etc. etc. and more recently Cuba, Venezuela, Moldova, etc, etc, etc.. Much like the United States, the USSR, Venezuela, China, etc. etc. etc. enjoy/enjoyed incredible natural wealth—they have/had valuable mineral resources that are/were critical to modern electronics, energy, medicine, etc. etc. etc. Unfortunately for the people, they have/had governments that were little more than kleptocracies. While the governments of (see list above, i’m tired of typing this shit out) are/were a long way from the condition of the United States’ government under Obama, they do provide numerous and sundry examples of what it is like to have a big, intrusive government that interferes with damn near everything including 1/6 of the economy including such matters as “business” and the environment. (Again, see list above) are/were, to be blunt, many degrees of hell on earth.

        • magus71 said, on October 15, 2013 at 9:29 pm

          Can we get this straight: Many people don’t want Obamacare. Because they don’t want Obamacare does not mean they want the Congo. I don’t want Obamacare.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 16, 2013 at 1:45 pm

            I never claimed this. I used the example of the DRC to show what can, in fact, happen when a government is a wreck. My general discussion is over the legitimate size and role of the state.

            • WTP said, on October 16, 2013 at 1:50 pm

              Thanks to the Obama’s leadership (or lack thereof), the United States is getting a small taste of what big government socialism is like. I was reading in the history books about Communist China, the USSR, Cambodia, Vietnam, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany, yes even Nazi Germany, etc, etc. etc. and more recently Cuba, Venezuela, Moldova, etc, etc, etc.. Much like the United States, the USSR, Venezuela, China, etc. etc. etc. enjoy/enjoyed incredible natural wealth—they have/had valuable mineral resources that are/were critical to modern electronics, energy, medicine, etc. etc. etc. Unfortunately for the people, they have/had governments that were little more than kleptocracies. While the governments of (see list above, i’m tired of typing this shit out) are/were a long way from the condition of the United States’ government under Obama, they do provide numerous and sundry examples of what it is like to have a big, intrusive government that interferes with damn near everything including 1/6 of the economy including such matters as “business” and the environment. (Again, see list above) are/were, to be blunt, many degrees of hell on earth.

        • T. J. Babson said, on October 15, 2013 at 10:08 pm

          Mike, this is where the small government types are coming from. Note that Congo scores very low in economic freedom.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 16, 2013 at 1:44 pm

            Congo scores low because to the degree the government is effective, it also tends to be corrupt and oppressive. The other factions are, if possible, even worse in this regard.

            Economic freedom in the broad sense is like all other freedom-there has to be a means of ensuring that everyone is able to enjoy their freedom. As Hobbes argued, without an enforcer of rights the right to all things (total freedom) becomes a right to nothing. A lack of order is not freedom, but chaos.

            • WTP said, on October 16, 2013 at 1:49 pm

              Everyone has the opportunity to have their freedom. You do NOT have the “freedom” to keep one person from doing business with another. Mike again with his “Freedom is slavery”…oh, wait…that was Orwell and he was being ironic.

  7. magus71 said, on October 16, 2013 at 4:43 am

    • T. J. Babson said, on October 16, 2013 at 7:34 am

      I’m going to have to add a bunch of JW movies to my Netflix queue.

      • WTP said, on October 16, 2013 at 9:19 am

        I was “learned” in college (during the evil Reagan years) to regard John Wayne as an evil tool of American Imperialism. Fortunately I wised up by my junior year. While I don’t regard him as an actor with broad skills like a Lawrence Olivier or Peter O’Toole, he was great at what he did. I’ve been trying to catch his films as they show up on AMC, etc. (I’m a fan of serendipity) and enjoying them once again. I just recently ran across a still from True Grit which I have posted on my office cube wall. It’s from the moment before the shootout with Robert Duvall when he utters one of my favorite movie quotes, “Fill your hands you sonofabitch!”. Anyway, if you’re looking for Wayne recommendations, my favorite is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A movie, when combined with Twain’s What Is Man, that consists of just about all one really needs to know about philosophy. Everything else is just background. Other Wayne films I’d recommend (favorites bolded):

        Stagecoach
        Fort Apache
        She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
        Rio Bravo
        The Longest Day
        How the West was Won
        The Sons of Katie Elder
        True Grit
        Red River


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