On Tuesday, the president of these United States called for an end to the “rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government,” so that he might move forward with his economic agenda uninhibited by “stale political arguments.” It was an interesting moment. The president’s childlike faith in his own ability to direct resources according to his own vision is almost touching in its way, though when the actual costs are accounted for it is terrifying. The president’s understanding of how the economy works is about as sophisticated as was my understanding of anatomy and nutrition at the age of four: Lean this way and we’ll strengthen the middle class, lean that way and we’ll nourish the working poor. He doesn’t even understand the debate that he wants to preempt: It is not only a question of the size of government but a question of what government does.
He only knows what he knows.
The questions we habitually ask —“Is the government spending too much? Is it spending enough?” — are without meaning in and of themselves. It matters what the government is spending on. Spending X percent of GDP to defeat Hitler is one thing, spending it to subsidize Solyndra is another. Government must always be recalibrated in light of current conditions: war or peace, boom or bust, expansion or decay. The debate about the size and scope of government can be “stale” only if you fail to understand that its relevance is constant and eternal.
Progressives like to frame the argument about the size and scope of government as Thomas Hobbes vs. Ayn Rand: Every step toward decentralization and deregulation is in their view a step toward chaos, the war of all against all. To the progressive, there can be no meaningful move toward liberty (save in the case of sexual license), only a dangerous slide toward anarchy. There is some irony in that: Progressives fear what they call “Social Darwinism,” which to the extent that it ever has existed as a coherent worldview has been associated with progressives, who translated it into policy in the form of horrific eugenics campaigns and forcible sterilizations. Progressives are smart people who never learn: Their characteristic fallacy is the belief that if a little bit of government is a good thing, then more must be better.