What Does “Limited Government” Actually Mean?

leviathanIt’s axiomatic (certainly among the august writers of Cut.Jib.Newsletter) that government is too large. Well, for those with functioning higher-order thinking, which excludes our current crop of Democrat presidential candidates (and most of the Republicans too). But ask Americans outside of the Beltway and the Upper West Side, and most will agree, with a bit of prodding, that we are over-regulated, over-taxed, over-controlled….

Yet the concept of limited government has come to mean, “roll it back (but just a little) or slow down what we have,” and doesn’t address what a truly limited government does, and more importantly, does not do for its citizens.

There are some functions of government that realistically cannot be done by the private sector (or the states). National defense is the most obvious; Building navies and air forces and equipping armies is properly done by national governments. It simply makes no sense to require…really, allow….each state to provide for its own defense. The noble but landlocked people of Kansas might not see as much utility in a powerful navy as the tanned beach-goers of Florida.

By extension of course the national transportation system of highways and bridges and other infrastructure (air traffic control comes to mind), a vital part of national defense, would be even more chaotic were we to allow the several states to control its construction and maintenance.

Mail delivery — specifically including 1st class mail and specifically excluding parcels — seems to be an appropriate extension of federal control.

The judiciary, as it applies to interstate commerce, contracts, property, etc, must be independent of the states, so the federal courts have an appropriate place in a limited government.

There are reasonable extensions of those functions listed above, and I have no doubt missed a few, but a truly limited federal government would have no business in education or the gasoline recipe used in the winter or healthcare or pedestrian walkways in midtown Manhattan or bike paths in Eugene or…….You all know the litany of government overreach that has resulted in the catastrophe that is 21st century America.

And as some of you older readers may know, there is an interesting document that describes these legitimate functions of government, and more importantly places formerly significant limits on those activities.

But….what would our country look like without some of these things? I am not talking about things like the Department of Energy, which has managed to piss away untold billions of dollars and gotten exactly nothing for it. Or the Department of Education, which to be fair, managed some significant changes in American education. As of the 2012 rankings we are 31st in Math and 24th in Science.

No, I mean things like the FDA. They have exerted total control over all pharmaceutical research and production in this country for generations. In the process they have probably prevented useless or dangerous drugs from entering the market, but they have also added immeasurably to the cost and length of time it takes to bring potentially lifesaving drugs to the public. How many excess deaths have we had because of FDA recalcitrance?

Or the DOT, EPA, and others involved in the hyper-regulation of the automobile industry. They have undoubtedly done good things: the removal of lead from gasoline has been an unalloyed good thing for the health of America. And mandating seat belts probably did more for our health than any other government activity. But….do we really need government-mandated systems to tell us that our tires our low?

I will not argue against the premise that some government regulation has been a positive for our country. But I will argue, forcefully and loudly, that the absence of regulation frees the market to innovate and create wealth. And wealth solves a multitude of evils. Clean water, clean food, clean air, safe homes, safe cars….all would occur at the hand of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Yes, the overweening federal government has saved us from many things…what has it prevented?

Is there a cure for lung cancer that was never examined because of the costs imposed by the FDA? Are there oil extraction techniques never to be seen because every step taken by energy companies is a huge regulatory struggle? Are there innovations and inventions and revolutions that we will never see…things we cannot possibly imagine….destroyed before they were born by the weight of bureaucracy that began as a well-intentioned scheme to protect us — from ourselves! — but has morphed into a leviathan.

I submit that the answer is yes.



6 comments to “What Does “Limited Government” Actually Mean?”
  1. To me, the notion of “what government should do for us” is very simple: it should do only those things which we cannot do for ourselves.

    We cannot, as individuals, defend the country against enemies (foreign and domestic). Nor can we build roads. Broadly speaking, we can’t stop those who break the law on a massive scale (I’m thinking particularly of some financial institutions, but this applies to some people in government as well).

    Everything else is — or at least should be — a matter of individual responsibility. I am, for example, perfectly able to fasten my own seatbelt in a car, or check the tire pressures. I neither need or want the Nanny State to hector me about such things.

    It has long been my contention that we could (and should) cut the number of government agencies and their payrolls by 2/3 and never suffer the slightest problem from doing so. This applies to elected officials as well: cut their budgets and staff by 50%, and the level of “service” we receive would not change.

  2. FDA is an interesting case, and an exemplar of why and where government regulation is sometimes necessary, viz., where ordinary citizens lack the time and expertise to make a considered judgment.

    Without FDA, we’d have a profusion of Kevin Trudeaus flogging off Coral Calcium and other worthless crap, and most people lack not only the time and expertise but the critical thinking skills that promote skepticism. Worse, some of the hucksters would divert people from effective therapy, and worst of all, the quack cures might themselves be harmful.

    OTOH, the problem with FDA is there is no upside for study panel to approve something efficacious, and no downside for rejecting it. The only downside scenario for them is to approve something that proves to be harmful.

    Interestingly, the case FDA defenders point to is thalidomide, but FDA didn’t stop thalidomide on scientific grounds: it merely took so long to review it that European evidence of teratogenicity had surfaced while FDA was still considering it.

  3. I am in qualified agreement with you about the FDA. But….there is plenty of quackery going on even with the brilliant scientists of the FDA defending us from the depredations of evil Big Pharma.

    I give you: Homeopathy.


  4. I view homeopathy as a pons asinorum. I suspect FDA lets it ride either because they don’t have legal standing to stop it, or more practically because they figure there’s no harm in letting idiots pay top dollar for water.

  5. There are a million, trillion, zillion things that the Government does that they should not.

    For example, I had to get a new washing machine a couple of months ago. The dealer told me that they don’t work well anymore, because they don’t rinse the soap off of your clothes, because the government dictated that they can’t use water. (ok as much water).

    And I completely disagree about seat belts. No one’s business except my own. In fact if it were my own decision, I would probably wear a four point harness like a race car, because they make sense. But as a mandated thing, I say screw-em.

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