Republicans and Small Government

The Republicans bill themselves as the party of small government. It’s stated right in their 2008 platform: “constrain the federal government.” This is partly a historical-constitutional position, resting on the 10th Amendment. It also reflects the Republican belief that large government is inefficient and unresponsive to the people. Small government also meshes with Republican tax policy (to be discussed soon), since a smaller government requires less tax revenue to support it.

This all sounds reasonable. Large organizations of any kind tend to bloat, reducing efficiency and responsiveness. But some tasks simply require the government, because they are so big, or so complex, or demand a consistent approach throughout the country. Take the military for example, or the FDA’s drug approval process, or regulation of pollution that crosses state lines. Or look at the financial markets, and what has happened over the last year as a consequence of a shrinking governmental role in regulation.

To stick with the FDA example, if the federal government doesn’t regulate drugs, who will? I can’t imagine anyone thinks that we should just let drug companies decide what they can and cannot sell. Should the market decide? By the time the market has figured out a drug is dangerous, people will be dead. Try drinking Chinese milk if you don’t believe this. Perhaps the Republican platform would prefer that states handle this. Republicans support “devolving” power from the federal to the local level. But should states regulate drugs? Counties? Cities? How local can you go?

There are two main problems with devolution. As discussed above, some tasks are simply too big for even state governments to handle. Second, with devolution comes replication. Instead of one large federal bureaucracy, you have 50 state bureaucracies, each doing essentially the same thing. Which is less efficient?

As an example, in California there is a state board of education along with 1,000 school districts and county boards of education. Each of these entities is evaluating textbooks and curriculum. The local districts have an association that represents them in the state capital, and that association alone employs 100 people. It’s hard to believe that this system is efficient or responsive to its constituents.

So while Republicans attack big government (recall Reagan’s famous quote: “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”) they don’t present a reasonable alternative. I am sure that some truly believe in a federalist system, and intellectually want to push decision-making as close to the people as possible. But many Republicans, I’m afraid, are simply against big government because they don’t really want government to help anyone but themselves.


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