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The Immorality of Small Government

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Paul Ryanby Jacob G. Hornberger

One of the favorite mantras of conservatives is “We favor small government.” As the conservative Wall Street Journal put it, “Rep. Paul Ryan took the national political stage Wednesday as the Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate, giving a televised speech that laid out one of the GOP’s sharpest cases yet … for Republicans as the party of small government. ” The liberal Washington Post echoed the sentiment: “Representative Paul Ryan … accepted the Republican vice-presidential nomination … as his party embraced the gamble that the small-government principles he represents have more political payoff than peril.”What exactly do conservatives mean by “small government”?

What they mean by the term is simply that they embrace all the socialist, interventionist, and imperialist programs of the liberals albeit in a reduced size.

Conservatives favor Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, education grants, foreign aid, the drug war, an overseas empire of military bases, the vast military-industrial complex, the CIA, and all the other aspects of the big welfare-warfare state that liberals embrace. The only difference between conservatives and liberals is over the size of all these programs. Conservatives say they want to downsize them (in actuality they usually vote to expand them) while liberals want to grow them.

To put it another way, liberals favor big statism while conservatives favor small statism. But the important point to recognize here is that they both ardently embrace a statist philosophy.

What better demonstration of this phenomenon than Ryan’s own pledge during his acceptance speech to save Medicare? There is no dispute over the fact that this welfare-state program, which was brought into existence by the giant liberal president Lyndon Johnson, is a socialistic program par excellent. It’s not a coincidence that government-provided healthcare is a core feature of Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba. Of course, while the Cuban government provides “free” healthcare to everyone, Medicare limits it to seniors (and Medicare provides it to the poor).

Republicans believe in Medicare. They love it. They want to save it. But their pitch is, “Put us in charge because we’ll streamline Medicare. We’ll treat it like a business. We’ll make it work. We’re the ones who can finally make socialism succeed (even if Republican administrations and Republican-controlled congresses in the past have failed to do so).”

Their problem is that they simply do not concern themselves with moral principles, as libertarians do. Oh, sure, they’ll wear their religion on their sleeves, reminding everyone that America is a Christian nation and promising to move America in a Christian direction. But, again, they simply do not concern themselves with moral or Christian principles when it comes to their socialistic programs.

Consider the fundamental aspect of the welfare state, which is that the government takes money from people to whom it belongs and gives to other people. That process is accomplished through force, which is what taxation is based on. Everyone knows that the payment of taxes is not voluntary. If you fail to pay, the government takes your home, your car, your salary, your savings, and everything else you own until the tax bill is satisfied.

How can a welfare-state system, which is based on a process of force, be reconciled with basic moral principles and Christian values? It can’t be, simply because it is based on force. In fact, not only is such a process inconsistent with moral principles and Christian values, it actually is a grave violation of such principles and values. It operates as a severe denigration of freedom of choice and of God’s sacred gift of free will.

That’s what conservatives just don’t get. They take the standard liberal line: that the existence of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other welfare-state programs shows that Americans hew to high moral standards and Christian values.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The existence of such programs reflects the exact opposite, owing to the fact that force is involved in the process.

Let’s say a woman needs an operation that will cost $25,000. Her children cannot afford to pay for it and neither can their mother. The children walk into a bank and rob it of the $25,000. They immediately take the money to the hospital, pay the bill in advance, and secure the operation.

Most people, including both liberals and conservatives, would agree that what the children have done is morally wrong and violates Christian principles. They’ve stolen other people’s money to pay for the operation. They deserve to have the state prosecute them for robbery and theft. They might argue for a lighter sentence but the fact that their mother needed an operation would not operate as a defense to the criminal charges.

What should the children and their mother have done? They should have asked people for the money. They should have asked for donations. They should have asked the doctor and the hospital for a discount or extended terms of payment.

What if everyone turned them down? Well, that’s what freedom of choice and free will are all about—the right to say “no” when someone asks for help. The fact that people say “no” in response to a request for money does not operate as license to steal the money from them. The right to say “no” must be protected if freedom of choice and free will are to remain sacrosanct.

Where liberals and conservatives lose their moral compass is with respect to government. If the government decides to take money from people (including the bank) and use it to pay the woman’s operation, liberals and conservatives cheer, exclaiming, “Look how moral America is! Look at how Christian we are!”

And the fact that the government is a representative democracy convinces liberals and conservatives that the nation is even more moral and Christian than, say, a totalitarian dictatorship that adopts a welfare state. With a dictatorship, it’s only the dictator who might be considered good, moral, and caring, but in a democracy it’s the people who are considered good, moral, and caring (along with the government officials who collect and distribute the tax monies).

Suppose Congress were to enact a law requiring everyone to attend church on Sunday. Let’s say that the law is passed unanimously and signed into law by the president. Could it be said that this reflects that America is a moral and Christian nation? Why not? Okay, sure, Jews, Muslims, and atheists might object to going to church on Sunday but what’s the big deal? How can it harm them to be exposed to Christian values? And anyway, we live in a democracy. If they don’t like the law, they can support candidates to get it repealed.

Most everyone, including liberals and conservatives, would respond: “No, Jacob, that would be plain wrong. Such a law would actually be inconsistent with moral principles and Christian values. People have a fundamental right to make that choice for themselves. Whether a person goes to church is entirely up to him, even if everyone decides not to go to church. This is an area that is not subject to majority vote.”

The question is: Why can’t conservatives and liberals see that the same reasoning applies to a person’s charitable decisions. A law that forces people to help others is no different, in principle, from a law that forces people to go to church. People have a fundamental right to decide for themselves whether to help others. Whether a person donates to some particular cause is entirely up to him. This is an area that is not subject to majority vote.

Small government versus big government. It is a debate between statists over who should administer the statism to which liberals and conservatives are devoted. It is also a debate that is devoid of moral values. The real issues are the one that we libertarians raise, such as, What should be the role of government in a free society, and where’s the morality in forcibly taking what doesn’t belong to you and giving it to someone else?

Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.


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