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Debate: Big government

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Is big, more liberal government better than small, conservative government?

Background and context

For decades and even centuries, a debate has raged over the appropriate size of government in a democratic society. In many ways, this is The debate, or the single most prominent debate pervading all other smaller debates shaping society and government policies. In the United States, for example, the recent 2009 and 2010 health care reform debate has become in large part a subsidiary-debate of the larger debate regarding big vs. small government, and whether government should have a bigger or smaller role in the health care industry. And this larger debate rears its head in other contemporary debates as well including, European social democracy, health insurance mandates, full-body scanners at airports, ban on trans fats, mandatory calorie counts on menus, education vouchers, charter schools, and many other debates. The arguments reaching across these various debates - on whether government is generally best kept large and robust or small and conservative - are presented below.

Contents

The individual: Is big government good for the individual?

Pro

  • Government exists to help individuals. Government is designed to help individuals, particularly in enabling them to achieve their full potential. This can be seen in government funded schools, scholarships, job-training and re-training programs, equal opportunity programs, disability regulations, civil rights laws, gender equality legislation, veterans affairs offices, as well as social security and Medicare programs. These programs and laws all provide immense help to individuals, allowing them an opportunity to live fulfilling and productive lives that we all benefit from.
  • Government is by, of, and for the people/individual. Many seem to regard government as some kind of monolithic institution detached from the citizens of a country, and even out to get them. This forgets the founding principles in any democracy, where government is by, of, and for the people and the individual. The government is, in other words, ultimately controlled and driven by the people, and is meant to reflect and uphold their interests. If a citizen feels that this is not the case, they should feel empowered by their vote and their ability to protest and organize in order to shape their government according to their interests.


Con

  • Power is better given to individuals than govts. "Big government: Stop!" The Economist. January 21st, 2010: "prejudices are still useful—and this newspaper’s prejudice is to look for ways to make the state smaller. That is partly for philosophical reasons: we prefer to give power to individuals, rather than to governments."
  • Big govt often hurts people it's trying to help By taxing citizens more, big government often hurts the citizens it's trying to help through social programs. By creating dependencies on state hand-outs, big government often hurts the people it's trying to help. Subsidies create similar dependencies, and the pattern continues. [See argument page for more].


Civil society: Does big government foster a strong society?

Pro

  • Strong citizen-driven govt binds communities. Citizens can come together to engage in government at all levels. Going to a caucus as a citizen, for example, and interacting with other citizens, and voting for and shaping the agenda of ones political party is an incredibly powerful form of civic engagement. It binds communities mightily, allowing them to come together to express their individual and common vision for their future, and then enabling them to achieve these goals through collective action, with the authority of the state. No other civil association has the same power, so is not as capable of rallying a community together.
  • Small government produces less healthy societies. Jeffrey Sachs. "The Case for Bigger Government." Time. January 8th, 2009: "Even as our economy worsened, many Americans consoled themselves with the belief that at least we were better off than people in other rich nations. No more. When you compare the U.S. with Canada, Western Europe and Japan, the news is sobering. Our child-poverty and infant-mortality rates are the highest, our life expectancy is the lowest, our budget deficit as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) is the highest, and our 15-year-olds rank among the lowest on tests of math and science."


Con

  • Big govt wrongly forces taxpayers to be charitable. Carla Howell. "Why small government?" The Center for Small Government: "[Small government] leaves us able and willing to support mutual aid and voluntary charity. It leaves us free to act from the love of our families, compassion for neighbors truly in need, and empathy for those unable to help themselves."

Containing growth: Can big govt contain its further expansion?

Pro

  • Government has no inherent interest in expansion "The Case FOR Bureaucracy." GovernmentIsGood.com.: "it is not clear at all that bureaucrats are always seeking to expand their agencies and their budgets. This budget-maximizing thesis was directly contradicted by a study conducted by Julie Dolan. [...] She found that in most areas the public was willing to support increased spending much more than the agency administrators. And, in most cases, a majority of these administrators did not support increased budgets. This was due, she believed, to administrators having a more realistic and sophisticated knowledge of these issues and programs. Her conclusion: 'In sum, the budget-minimizing tendencies of federal administrators reported here suggest that self-interest is not as powerful a motivator as previously believed, and they suggest we should revise our theories about self-interested bureaucrats inflating government budgets for their own gain.'"
  • Govt growth results mainly from citizens demanding it "The Case FOR Bureaucracy." GovernmentIsGood.com.: "What has driven the historical expansion of government in the United States? [...] government responsibilities increased because of public demand for social and economic regulation increased. During those eras [of the 1930s, 60s, and 70s], massed-based social movements – including the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the environmental movement – insisted that the government address a wide variety of pressing social and economic problems."


Con

  • Big government tends to grow even bigger. "Big government: Stop!" The Economist. January 21st, 2010: "the bigger and more powerful the state gets, the more it tends to grow." The main reason advanced in support of this thesis is that more powerful governments and bureaucrats have more power and resources to grow even more, and impede on our lives with greater force and unchecked authority.
  • Govt bureaucrats pursue more power to advance careers. Government bureaucrats, as they accumulate more power through the expansion of government, desire to accumulate more of this power, funding, and sway as a means of advancing their careers. Particularly, in the absence of profits and handsome salaries and bonuses, the most that government bureaucrats can hope for is an expansion of their power and their careers. Across a bureaucracy, this means that big government leads to even bigger government.
  • Big govt weakens local assocs and check they offer. Ryan Messmore. "A Moral Case Against Big Government." Heritage Foundation. February 27, 2007: "Misplaced Allegiance Threatens Democracy. Citizens' cultural allegiances to family, church, and local associations [...] are some of 'the most powerful resources of democracy.' The diversification of authority and allegiance among social institutions helps to prevent any one institution from becoming too powerful." In so far as government undermines these social institutions, it undermines a vital check on government in a democracy. This can lead to ever-expanding government power.


Spending: Does big government spend excessively/wastefully?

Pro

  • Idea of govt as "wasteful bureaucracy is mostly a myth "The Case FOR Bureaucracy." GovernmentIsGood.com: "Conservatives like to play on this popular prejudice by constantly equating government with bureaucracy. The comments of Charlton Heston are typical: 'Of course, government is the problem. The armies of bureaucrats proliferating like gerbils, scurrying like lemmings in pursuit of the ever-expanding federal agenda testify to that amply.' Once government is thought of as “bureaucracy,” the case for reducing it becomes obvious. Who could complain if Republicans want to get reduce these “armies of bureaucrats”? Everyone knows that we would all be better off with less bureaucracy and fewer bureaucrats in our lives. So when conservatives want to make shrinking government sound attractive, they say they are cutting 'bureaucracy' – not 'programs.' Most people value government programs – especially in the areas of education, health and the environment – and do not want to see them reduced; but everyone hates bureaucracy. Using the term 'bureaucracy' in this way is a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that obscures the real costs of cutting back on government programs."

Con

  • Big govt programs/bureaucracies are wasteful. Michael Cloud. "Why not big government? The five iron laws." The Center for Small Government: "4. Big Government Programs are costly and wasteful. Have you ever heard about government cost under-runs? How many times have you read about government projects that come in at 5 or 10 or 20 times the price initially agreed to? Why aren’t Big Government Programs thrifty? Because they don’t have to be. It’s not their money. Every year, the officials running these Big Government programs go back to their local or state or federal legislators for bigger budgets and more tax dollars."


Vs private sector: How does govt compare to private sector?

Pro

  • Government is better than businesses at many things "The Case FOR Bureaucracy." GovernmentIsGood.com.: "Myth No. 2: Business is Always Better than Bureaucracy. [...] Charles Goodsell is a professor of Public Administration and Public Affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who has spent much of his life studying bureaucracy. After examining these efficiency studies, he concluded: 'In short, there is much evidence that is ambivalent. The assumption that business always does better than government is not upheld. … When you add up all these study results, the basis for the mantra that business is always better evaporates.'"
  • Govt can offer good value for money. Govt can add very good value for the money. This is a result of the high level of skill and motivation among government employees, as well as the scale of the government and resources it can draw upon to effectively utilize govt money.
  • Overlap b/w companies is less efficient than unified govt. "The Case FOR Bureaucracy." GovernmentIsGood.com.: "Another source of administrative inefficiency in our private multi-payer health care system is the enormous amount of overlap between companies. Each insurance company must maintain its own records and develop its own billing processes. This is much more expensive than using a single government administrative structure."
  • Government avoids pitfalls of focus on profits "The Case FOR Bureaucracy." GovernmentIsGood.com.: "Myth No. 3: We Want the Government to Act Like a Business. The astronaut John Glenn tells a story about his first trip into space. As he sat in the capsule, waiting nervously on the launching pad, he couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that NASA had given the contract for the rocket to the lowest bidder. This raises another important point about government bureaucracies: we don’t always want them to act like businesses."

Con

  • Big govt creates unintended consequences. Michael Cloud. "Why Not Big Government? The Five Iron Laws." The Center for Small Government: "3. Big Government Programs create new problems. [...] The Federal Government created Medicare to help senior citizens and Medicaid to help the poor with medical care. Unintended consequences? Massive government funding for these programs drove up health care costs – for those participating and those not. It made doctors and hospitals accountable to the government — instead of patients. It breeched patient-doctor medical confidentiality. It set in motion the drive toward a Government Monopoly — 'Single-Payer' — Health Care System. Toward Socialized Medicine. [...] Social Security? Government Central Planning of Education? Government Disaster Relief? The War on Drugs? Mandatory Minimums? All create new problems. Unintended consequences."


Economic growth: Is big government good for economic growth?

Pro

  • Big government helps stimulate economic growth Throughout history, there were several big, liberal governments. Peter the Great (Russia), Catherine the Great (Russia), FDR (US), Park-Chung-Hee (South Korea), Sejong the Great (South Korea), Elizabeth the First (Britain), among other leaders. Under these leaders, the country they governed reached great economic growth. For example, look at Park-Chung-Hee of South Korea. Although a military dictator, he funneled growth by government leadership. He sharpened the industrial sector, began ordering production, and spent taxpayer's money on expanding the economy. Now, look at South Korea. It's one of the finest success stories in the world. South Korea was turned from a devastated, farming, poor country into the 13th largest economy in 3 decades. There is overwhelming evidence that big, liberal governments help improve the economy dramatically.
  • Govt can partner in creating and enhancing business. Jeffrey Sachs. "The Case for Bigger Government." Time. January 8th, 2009: "By spending more through government and treating government as a partner rather than an enemy of the private sector, we can potentially save vast sums in the long run through a more efficient health-care system, safer climate, more competitive economy and more secure country."
  • History shows economic gains from govt intervention Jeff Madrick. "How big government helps the economy take off." Boston Globe. September 7, 2008: "Contrary to the romantic claims about the nation's laissez-faire past, American history is a story of government intervening, time and again, to support growth. [...] Early America created a national bank to maintain its finances and currency, critical to a smooth-functioning modern economy, at the instigation of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington's treasury secretary. Under Thomas Jefferson, well-known for his laissez-faire sympathies, America bought the Louisiana territories in what amounted to a large federal spending program. He thus provided cheap land to farmers at federally controlled low prices, enabling them to feed themselves and the nation, but also soon to produce surpluses to feed Britain as well, adding to America's wealth." [more of quote in argument page].
  • Government as impediment to growth is a popular myth. Jeff Madrick. "The case for big government." October 22, 2009: "All myths are by definition simplistic. The one that became entrenched in the late 1970s and early 1980s had as its core claim that government's presence was usually an impediment to prosperity and that the best course for the American economy was to reduce aggressively government's size and reach. So popular was this destructive notion that the end of the “era of big government” was announced proudly in 1996 by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton."

Con

  • Small govts have higher per capita income. Milton Friedman. "The Hong Kong Experiment." The Hoover Institution. 1998: "According to the latest figures I have, per capita income in Hong Kong is almost identical with that in the United States. [...] That is close to incredible. Here we are—a country of 260 million people that stretches from sea to shining sea, with enormous resources, and a two-hundred-year background of more or less steady growth, supposedly the strongest and richest country in the world, and yet six million people living on a tiny spit of land with negligible resources manage to produce as high a per capita income. How come? [...] The explanation is the same as for Britain and Israel. Direct government spending is less than 15 percent of national income in Hong Kong, more than 40 percent in the United States."
  • Big govt diverts money from more productive uses. Michael Cloud. "Why not big government? The five iron laws." The Center for Small Government: "5. Big Government Programs divert money and energy from positive, productive uses. Big Government Programs are funded with hundreds of billions of tax dollars taken from productive workers and businesses. Every dollar drained from the private sector is a dollar that the individuals and business who earned it can’t spend, save, invest, or give to effective private organizations and programs that help those less fortunate. [...] Charities, churches, and service organizations strive to assist those in need – and help them become self-sufficient. Because these organizations rely on voluntary donations, they are directly accountable to their supporters. Because they operate on lean budgets, they streamline their operations, eliminate needless overhead, and seek better ways to help those unable to help themselves. They regularly produce good results – at a fraction of the expense of comparable Big Government Programs."
  • Big govt in the economy fosters special interest ties. US President Woodrow Wilson: "If the government is to tell big business men how to run their business, then don’t you see that big business men have to get closer to the government even than they are now?"[1]

Taxes: Are higher taxes OK for society?

Pro

  • Higher taxes don't actually weaken growth Jeff Madrick. "How big government helps the economy take off." Boston Globe. September 7, 2008: "Reagan swept into office on the promise of tax cuts and reducing government, and what followed were the boom years of the 1980s. To conservatives of the time, it seemed strong proof that the arguments of Friedman and his followers were correct. [...] But there is also a strong case that they were wrong. In 1992, President Bill Clinton succeeded in passing legislation to raise the income tax rate on higher income Americans. Harvard's Feldstein, who had served as Reagan's chief economic adviser, claimed that the tax increase would reduce the incentives to work and therefore the incomes of the wealthy. It turned out to do nothing of the kind: the top tier of Americans, in fact, made more money." [see argument page for extended quote].

Con

  • Big govt spending helps poor less than tax-cuts. Edward Glaesar. "The Case for Small-Government Egalitarianism." New York Times. January 13, 2009: "Libertarian progressivism distrusts big increases in government spending because that spending is likely to favor the privileged. Was the Interstate Highway System such a boon for the urban poor? Has rebuilding New Orleans done much for the displaced and disadvantaged of that city? Small-government egalitarianism suggests that direct transfers of federal money to the less fortunate offer a surer path toward a fairer America."


Europe: Is European-style big government a good model?

Pro

  • European-style big gov has more stable society. Jeffrey Sachs. "The Case for Bigger Government." Time. January 8th, 2009: "The European strategy, with levels of taxation and government spending roughly 8% to 10% of GDP higher than in the U.S., has many successes to show for it: less costly and more reliable health care, the elimination of hard-core poverty, solid educational achievements, and social services that ensure better care for children and more flexibility for mothers and the elderly."

Con

Pro/con articles

Pro


Con

See also

External links and resources

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