Freedom is More Than Small Government

It’s pretty easy to get depressed about the prospects for freedom given the rather gloomy prospects discussed in these essays. However, I think it is important to remember that freedom encompasses much more than just escaping government’s oppression and intrusion, and growth in government spending and taxation don’t automatically lead to totalitarianism.

I think many conservatives and libertarians look at government’s share of GDP as the basic measure of freedom. Implicitly, if there were no government, we would be 100 percent free, they assume. If government taxing and spending consume one third of GDP, then we are only two-thirds free and so on.

Obviously, there is something to this. But because it is so easy to measure government’s share of the economy, I think we tend to focus too much on it to the exclusion of some other important factors. On the negative side, we tend to understate the importance of government regulation, which is hard to quantify and may impact our lives more significantly than taxation or other governmental actions.

On the positive side, I think we tend to under-appreciate the ways in which technology frees us. The blessings of things like the Internet compensate for an enormous amount of waste and inefficiency elsewhere in society and the economy. To the extent that technology boosts productivity, it makes more bearable the burden of government.

Another thing we tend to forget is the great benefit of the wealth that almost all Americans have today. Not that many years ago, people had to spend an enormous percentage of their waking hours simply to acquiring and preparing food. Now even among poor households, obtaining adequate food is a minor concern. Indeed, obesity is a far bigger problem among the poor than malnutrition.

Because of this, burdens that might have been unbearable in the past can actually be borne with relative ease today. Consider taxation. If much of society is barely able to produce enough to sustain life, then even the smallest tax can be extremely painful. That’s the main reason why tax burdens before the 20th century were minuscule everywhere—there was simply nothing to tax. Wealth, incomes, output and productivity were too low.

Now that the cost of basics—water, food, clothing and shelter—have fallen dramatically from just a few generations ago, people can afford to pay more taxes without suffering the deprivations that similar burdens would have imposed in the past. And they get more back for their tax dollars. At the federal level, the vast majority of people will get back every dollar they paid in Social Security taxes plus interest. And although the cost of Medicare is rising, at least it involves a service that almost everyone will eventually benefit from.

This brings me to an unappreciated point about how Social Security and Medicare relate to freedom. Conservatives and libertarians tend to look at these programs solely in terms of the way they diminish freedom—taking away freedom of choice in terms of pensions and medical care in old age. But before these programs came along, care for the aged imposed an enormous and personal burden on families. Children were expected to take in their aged parents, care for them and provide them with food and medicine out of their own pockets. It’s a tremendous blessing for families to not have to worry so much about their parents, which has increased their freedom to live their own lives in ways that can only be appreciated by those who, for whatever reason, have to take care of a frail, ailing parent in old age.

At the same time, advanced health care and nutrition have vastly increased freedom in old age. Not only do people live much longer today, but they are in far better condition and better able to enjoy life well past age 65. Those who would otherwise be crippled now have mobility, the formerly deaf can now hear, and drugs now cure diseases that killed millions in the prime of life. All of this adds immeasurably to freedom and tends to be overlooked by those who dwell exclusively on the relationship between people and government as its sole determinant.

Finally, I would just add that freedom is defined not only by the relationship between citizens and government, but also in private and business relationships as well. For example, not too long ago it was extremely difficult to get a simple divorce. Now it’s very easy. And many women were trapped in loveless marriages simply because they had no other option in a world in which job opportunities for them were extremely limited. There were also deep societal stigmas attached to things like having a child out of wedlock. Today, of course, women are thoroughly integrated in the labor force and options for single women, whether divorced or never married, are as broad as they are for men, including those who choose to have children without the benefit of a husband.

Other groups in society have also seen a vast increase in their freedom over the past couple of generations. Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities have improved their position in society astonishingly just compared to their position when I was a child. For the most part, homosexuals, atheists and other groups historically discriminated against are now free for the most part to live their lives openly without having to hide their nature or beliefs to avoid persecution. Of course, more needs to be done. But we shouldn’t dismiss the fact that enormous progress has been made to increase freedom for millions who had very little within recent memory.

My purpose is not to defend government or say that taxes don’t matter for freedom. My point simply is to suggest that there tends to be a myopia among conservatives and libertarians that is quick to condemn governmental curtailments of individual liberty, while failing to appreciate or even acknowledge expansions of personal freedom and many other things that have enormously improved our lives over those of our parents and grandparents, not to mention those in the distant past.

Perhaps we are moving toward European levels of taxation and spending. While I would prefer not to live that way, I certainly don’t view those in Scandinavia, where the level of government is twice what it is here, as twice as close to slavery as we are. In other words, it’s not the end of the world even if the most pessimistic projections about rising taxation and spending are true. We can still live in a society that is only a little less free than the one we have today even if freedom is not expanded in other ways, such as through technology.

In short, it may be too easy to be pessimistic about the future of freedom by focusing only on the political. Looking at freedom more broadly shows enormous and underappreciated progress that is likely to continue even if the tax/GDP ratio rises sharply in the future.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, bestselling author and former Bush speechwriter David Frum considers whether the time has come and gone for the small government heirs of Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich. His answer: “the day in which we could look to the GOP to have an affirmative small-government vision of its own has I think definitively passed.” Government slashing types have never been more than an active minority in the GOP, Frum argues, and there is little chance that Republicans going forward will repudiate the spirit of the big-government Bush agenda. The small-government conservative’s best hope is that, like the defunct Whigs and Progressives, elements of their ideas and ideals will survive as a part of the political consensus.

Response Essays

  • Bruce Bartlett, author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, agrees with Frum’s gloomy assessment of the prospects for small government and argues that conservatives and libertarians often compound the problem by failing to understand the magnitude and political intractability of the government’s non-discretionary entitlement programs. Slashing government is not “as easy as waving a magic wand.” Bartlett warns of the danger of resigning in frustration and calls for “a serious debate among libertarians and small government-types on a realistic political strategy for achieving their goals.”

  • Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argue that although a renewed push for smaller government isn’t in the cards, Republicans can realistically hope to win reforms that promote “freedom, self-reliance, and individual initiative”–values at the core of the small-government movement. In the current climate, Douthat and Salam write, “simply calling for the rollback of government appeals only to those already in the winner’s circle of American life…” So, they argue, Republicans “need to accept that government will remain large in the short run … while pursuing long-range strategies that will produce a more opportunity-friendly, less statist America.”

  • Cato executive vice president David Boaz argues that the Republicans have failed Reagan’s vision, offering their own brand of meddlesome statism as an alternative to the Democrats’. Although there is in the U.S. a constituency for limited government, Boaz argues, it needs a leader. The task for “advocates of liberty and limited government” is to “make ready the ideas, the platform, the networks that could serve a political leader who wanted to take on the task of clearing away the late 20th century’s accumulated burden of bureaucratic systems, unfunded liabilities, overextended military commitments, and usurpations of the responsibilities of free citizens.”