Stuck in the Mud: The Size of Government and the Scope of Civil Rights

Are you a proponent of Big Government or Small Government? The contemporary Big v. Small debate is often framed by arguments about deficit spending and the national debt. If you’re for Big Government, then you would like to distribute no-limit credit cards to every American like Santa tossing candy canes at the Christmas parade. If you’re for Small Government, then you would relish a world where every nursing home is a pruney Lord of the Flies and where food stamps are an antique collector’s item. Neither caricature, of course, is true.

Intractable discourse, wherein both sides grow more deeply entrenched in their own positions the longer the debate continues, is like an old farm truck spinning and digging deeper down into the mud. I speak from experience: the only way out of that mud is to stop revving our engine, get out of the truck, assess the situation, and wedge something solid under the tire that will help us gain traction and get unstuck.

In the case of the proper size of government, the debate is stuck in two places. The first is simple and easily dispensed with: the false dichotomy of Big versus Small. Most reasonable citizens would advocate for neither Big nor Small, but rather Optimal Government, a government system scaled to the size of the problems it is designed to solve.

The second area of wheel-spinning is even more fundamental: what problems is government designed to solve? Put differently, what is the essential purpose of government? By answering this question, we are no longer disingenuously substituting effects for causes, and, hopefully, we can gain some real traction.

I begin with a couple of premises. First, most governments are not models of efficiency in their decision-making or provision of services. This inefficiency is endemic and is attributable both to bureaucracy and to economics. Inefficiency is a result of organizational complexity, and big governments are complex entities with checks and balances (but with unbalanced checkbooks! Badum-CHING). Inefficiency is also a result of structural incentives that promote hunkered down careerism, isolated organizational fiefdoms, a predilection for risk avoidance, and a tacit selection bias in favor of compliant box checkers over entrepreneurial rock stars.

A second premise is that government is good at growing and bad at contracting. As any HR manager will tell you, hire well, because it’s a lot easier to hire than it is to fire. It’s a lot easier to add a Cabinet Secretary than to eliminate one, and downsizing the Pentagon to the Trapezoid would border on an impeachable offense. In this respect, government is like technology that suffers from feature creep. Microsoft Word used to be a straightforward word processor, but, over time, Microsoft kept adding more and more gizmos and barnacles until the program morphed into this ridiculous, bloated, intrusive, confusing, dancing paperclip mess. Government has this same inclination. From the sprawling tax code to the latest Senate subcommittee on steroids in baseball or bounties in football, government is predisposed to mistake its broad authority for its functional necessity.

To be clear, I am no Pollyanna when it comes to the capacity of government organizations to be efficient or effective. I’ve visited the Post Office. At the same time, I am skeptical of reflexive calls for privatization of government services. Government serves a legitimate purpose that businesses cannot. But what is that purpose?

The essential purpose of any government is to secure the property rights of its citizens. That property may include real property (immovable assets) or personal property (movable assets). The former includes land and buildings, while the latter includes a wider range of assets like intellectual property (patents, trademarks, copyrights) and civil or human rights, as I discussed in an earlier essay. Because government exists to protect the entirety of citizens’ interests, including economic interests, it also must protect commercial rights as a subset of civil rights. Laws are, at their most elemental, rules for the preservation of rights, and the judiciary and penal systems exist to protect against the violation of those rights.

In its efforts to secure rights, government must be hands-on in the creation of order and hands-off in the preservation of liberty. The perpetual tension between liberty and order is a master trope of political theory.  Taken to their respective logical extremes, liberty could precipitate anarchy and order, tyranny. A sound constitutional government manages that tension, turning cacophony into harmony.

The next step in our discovery of the optimal size of government is revealed in the distinction between what government must do and what government should do. There are essential services that government must provide, and there are preferable services that government should provide. How do we determine what is essential and what is preferable?

Essential services relate directly to securing the property of citizens, while preferable services have an indirect bearing on that security. National defense (protection against harm from without) and law enforcement (protection against harm from within) are essential government services. Public education and agricultural aid are, on the other hand, preferable services, because the failure to provide them does not constitute a direct threat to the security of property. However, failure to provide these preferable services would result in certain indirect threats to the citizenry’s personal and economic security, since rampant ignorance and hunger would lead to escalating crime rates and expensive, overflowing prisons.

The line between essential and preferable, though, is not always clear. When access to infrastructure or staple goods (e.g., water, food, waste, energy, telecommunications, environment, parks, or transportation) is understood as a civil or human right, then it becomes an essential government service. Also, some preferable services become essential by default, because no other person or organization is capable of providing the service. For example, capital-intensive or low-ROI projects such as infrastructure improvements or access to utilities in remote areas may not fit into the business models of private enterprise, so government subsidies exist to support civil rights. The same is true in education, where the lion’s share of federal funds is targeted at civil rights programs (i.e., access to education for disabled or disadvantaged students).

We see, then, how the size of government is heavily influenced by what constitutes a civil right. Is government required to care for those citizens unable to care for themselves: the orphan, the elderly, the infirm, the destitute? While much social welfare is accomplished by not-for-profit organizations, both historical precedent (e.g., the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages) and economic modeling indicate the unavoidable necessity of government in weaving the social safety net. 1 On an even thornier topic, even the staunchest opponent of “Obamacare” would struggle to make a case that in the United States in 2012, access to healthcare is not a civil right.

While some may translate their ideological biases into advocacy for either a minimal or maximal view of government, the relative point of stasis on the continuum of government size is optimal. I’ve tried to demonstrate that the optimal size of government is determined by its functional scope and operational efficiency. I haven’t delved into budget allocations for any specific government initiative, but I hope you can extrapolate an algorithm or weighted rubric that takes the essential to preferable scale into account in calculating funding levels.

The “wedge” of this essay is the surprising role of civil rights in the debate over government size and spending. While we argue past each other, our hot, bald tires sink deeper in the mire. To get out of this mess, we need to start with a serious discussion about what is and what is not a civil right in the United States of America.

  1. Social welfare runs headlong into a problem of scale and resources. If your market is a significant percentage of the population, your revenue should be a factor of GDP. 15% of Americans now live below the relative poverty line ($22,000 for a family of four), while 22% of the entire world population lives below the absolute poverty line ($1.25 per day). (Sources: US Census Bureau and The World Bank.) For-profit enterprises can achieve scale (especially as publicly-traded companies), but their profit mandate overshadows any incentive for benevolence.  
About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.