Despite the claims of conservatives, there is no necessary trade-off between government size and the freedom citizens.
"FREEDOM!" has always been a rallying cry of anti-government activists. Many conservatives embrace and extol libertarian principle that “Individual freedom and government power are polar opposites. More government means
less freedom.”1 For them, the trade-off between government size and individual liberty is inevitable, and this is main reason they work to minimize government.
As Ronald Reagan once put it: “Runaway government threatens … the very preservation of freedom itself.”2 Charlton
Heston, speaking to a college audience in the 1990s, argued that the government had become more than just threat, that it had already reached oppressive proportions in the United States:
There is now no aspect of American life, public or private, that the federal government does not invade, instruct finally coerce to its will. Farm and factory, home and school, university and research center, club and playground are overlaid with a spidery network of laws, guidelines, restrictions and Draconian penalties that stifle the spirit, energy, the creative capacity of what was once the freest nation on earth. In this hemisphere, now that Ortega and
Noriega have fallen, the collectivists' sentiments discredited around the world fly best, I fear, in Cuba and Washington,
Heston’s views may seem extreme, but it is important to realize that many Americans are concerned about
government impinging on their freedoms. Almost a third of us believe that the federal government “poses an
immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” And many people resent it fiercely whenever the
government prevents them from doing what they want to do – whether it is riding a motorcycle without a helmet, in a wetland on their property, or carrying a gun for their own protection.
Bashing the government in the name of freedom can be a very effective political tactic. After all, freedom is
quintessentially American. It is our most basic political value and a fundamental part of our national political identity.
We are “the land of the free” as we sing in our national anthem. And so, to the extent that government can be portrayed
as interfering with our individual rights and freedoms, it will be seen as bad – as anti-American.
The political right's ability to convince many Americans that there is an inevitable trade-off between government freedom has been one of its greatest ideological victories. In one stroke, it renders illegitimate virtually all liberal initiatives. Any effort to expand social programs or increase regulation becomes seen as an attack on freedom.
value freedom, it is argued, you should strongly oppose any increase in public sector activity. If you love freedom, should hate government.
Or so it seems.
But things are not always as they seem. In reality, this view of the relationship between freedom government is incomplete, distorted, and often wrong. It relies almost entirely on a misleading stereotype:
as “Big Brother.” But if we can step back and look at the performance of our "constitutional republic" government more objective and less dogmatic way, we begin to see that many of the basic conservative and libertarian
assumptions about government and freedom are mistaken.
Let’s start by seeing what is wrong with the assumption that there is an inevitable trade-off between government our individual rights and liberties. Former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey put this assumption succinctly: sheer mass of our federal government is simply inconsistent with a free society.”5 But it is a mistake to believe the size or extent of government has anything to do with how oppressive it is. For example, you could have a country
with a minimal public sector that was very repressive to its citizens. It would have low taxes, few social service
programs, and hardly any regulations on business. But it could also be incredibly oppressive – allowing only oneparty
elections, banning free speech, muzzling the press, preventing freedom of assembly, jailing people arbitrarily,
etc. On the other hand, we could have a society with a public sector much larger than we have now that has all the
freedoms of a modern democracy. Belgium, for example, has a public sector almost twice the size of the United
States as a proportion of GDP, and has much more extensive health care, unemployment, and pension programs. Belgian citizens enjoy essentially the same rights and liberties as Americans. We see very few Belgian political
refugees applying for asylum in the U.S. because they are oppressed in their homeland.
So the size and extent of government activity, by itself, tells us nothing about how free or oppressive a society is. necessary trade-off between government size and citizen’s freedom simply does not exist. And the reason it does exist is because many of the most common activities of the modern state – building roads and highways, putting fires, fighting disease, treating our sewage, providing college loans, funding basic scientific research, providing
medical care for the elderly, supplying clean water, feeding the poor, providing parks and recreational facilities,
subsidizing farmers, educating our children, forecasting the weather, sending out Social Security checks, and so are not inherently coercive or oppressive at all. So it is simply mistaken to automatically equate more government less freedom.
The minimal-government crowd uses this “more government = less freedom” formula to make all sorts of alarmist
claims. For example, some suggest that every increase in government power is a step down the road to
totalitarianism and repression. This is a favorite argument of many conservatives and they use it to oppose even
small and seemingly reasonable increases in government programs or regulations. For example, they argue that we allow the government to insist on background checks to buy guns, this will lead to mandatory gun registration,
which will eventually lead to confiscation of guns, and this will put the government in a position to repress a disarmed
and helpless citizenry. Or they suggest that legalizing assisted-suicide for terminally ill patients will only set the for government euthanasia programs aimed at the handicapped and others. Or they fear that mandating non-smoking
areas is merely a step toward outlawing cigarettes altogether. Or they contend that if we allow environmental
regulations to restrict how an owner deals with wetlands on their property, we are going down a road in which property
rights will eventually be meaningless because the state will control all property. This seems to be the view of
conservative judge Janice Rogers – one of George W. Bush’s appointees to the federal judiciary. In one of her
opinions, she railed against local restrictions on the rights of real estate developers in California and concluded “Private property, already an endangered species in California, is now entirely extinct in San Francisco."6
In his book, Defending Government, Max Nieman has labeled this argument the “Big Brother Road to Dictatorship.” suggests that the expansion of government powers in the U.S. during the last 75 years has been inevitably leading down the path toward totalitarianism. But as he has noted, there is really no valid evidence for this theory.