It is certainly encouraging to see a massive grassroots movement demanding that government cease its exponential growth. The Tea Party movement has already flexed its muscles in some high-profile elections, and there is widespread consensus that it will be a factor in the 2010 elections. For the first time in over a century, there is a critical mass of people actually demanding limited government.
However, there is one very important question that must be answered. What is limited government?
The answer supplied by Republicans for the past several decades has been “lower taxes, balanced budgets, and less government spending.” These are all wonderful ideas, although Republicans have hardly put them into practice when given the reins of power. Afterwards, their supporters have chastised them for “not being true conservatives,” although I’m not sure that the conservative movement has ever really been about “small government.” In any case, the fundamental assumption underlying conservative rhetoric is that the limits of government are quantitative. One is led to believe that if the government would only spend less on health care, education, stimulus packages, and other programs (excluding the military, of course), that freedom, peace, and prosperity would be just around the corner.
However, limited government has nothing to do with how much money government spends, but rather what government is allowed to spend money on. Restoring freedom and constitutional government depends not just upon cutting taxes, but redefining what services government can legitimately tax its citizens to underwrite. At one time in America, there was a clear and unambiguous answer to that question: taxation was limited to underwriting the defense of life, liberty, and property.
Politicians have to mince words in order to keep fragile constituencies together, so they rarely make unambiguous statements. When one faction among their supporters opposes a new government health care program, they cannot agree on principle and say that government should have no role in providing health care. This would alienate another faction among their supporters that are currently benefitting from an already well-established government health care program. So, the politician uses words like “sensible” and “market-driven” in order to attack his opponent’s program without acknowledging the principle that it violates whether administered “sensibly” or not.
Truly limited government can only mean one thing: enforcing the non-aggression principle, known to our founders as “the law of nature.” Jefferson said that no man has the right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and that is all from which the law ought to restrain him. As government is merely the societal use of force, its limits are no different than the limits on the use of force by an individual. An individual may use force only in defense against aggression and under no other circumstances. He may never initiate force. The words “sensible,” “lower,” and “smaller” do not apply. The limits on government are absolute.
The argument that needs to be made against the current health care program is that it violates the law of nature. By forcing some people to pay for health care services that are provided to others and by forcing everyone to purchase health insurance regardless of their consent, government exceeds the natural limits of its power. It initiates force and thereby commits aggression against every individual in society. The initiation of aggression results in the state of war. It is for this reason that the new health care program should be repealed. Once the argument is diverted to one simply about cost or the practical means to fund the program, the principle of limited government has been abandoned.
While this is a relatively simple answer, as are all answers to questions of justice, it is a double-edged sword for conservatives. Once the true limits of government power are acknowledged, then a large swath of the conservative platform is called into question. Most obviously, garnering support from older Americans in opposing “Obamacare” on the grounds that it will necessitate cuts in Medicare contradicts the principle of limited government. The flimsy distinction between the new health care program and the old has been that Medicare recipients have “paid into the system all of their lives.” While this is undoubtedly true, everyone knows that those payments all went to underwrite previous beneficiaries and not into some magical trust fund. Medicare is no less a redistribution program than Obamacare. It just benefits a different special interest group.
While support for Medicare may merely be a political necessity for conservative politicians, truly limited government is also at odds with what has become the bedrock of modern conservatism: support for the worldwide U.S. military establishment. This is not to say that limited government means no military establishment at all. However, it does mean that the government has no legitimate authority to maintain standing armies overseas, to fight wars to protect one nation from another, or to protect a foreign people from a despotic government. The natural limit of government military action is to defend its own citizens against aggression by a foreign nation. Beyond this, it is initiating force and exceeding that natural limit.
One might argue that every individual has a right and a duty to protect a fellow human being from aggression by a third party, and that therefore the U.S. government’s military interventions around the world are justified. This was the basis for the (second) argument for the Iraq war. Saddam Hussein was oppressing his people and the United States had a duty to protect them from him. However, no individual has a right to force someone else to defend a third party against aggression. Every American had the right to send money to support Hussein’s opponents or even to go and fight in a revolution to overthrow him. However, no American had the right to force his neighbor to do so. The natural limit on military spending is that which is necessary to protect those taxed to support it. Humanitarian aid in any form must be voluntary.
Liberals constantly use the term “fair share” when justifying the egregious taxation and redistribution system that the U.S. government has become. Of course, this begs the question, “What is my fair share of services that I don’t use and that I actively oppose?” The only rational answer to this question is “zero.” However, once you come to this inescapable conclusion, virtually all government social and economic programs must be eliminated, as they are all based upon taxing one person in order to provide benefits to another.
Limited government does require each individual to pay his fair share, which is the cost to protect his own life, liberty, and property and that of his dependents. It is limited to what is necessary to “secure these rights.” While everyone may not have an equal amount of property, everyone has equal rights and thus an equal stake in providing for their defense. An examination of the U.S. government’s budget reveals that the cost of providing this defense of individual rights is orders of magnitude less than what is spent now. A government operating within its natural limits would not require an income tax, a value added tax, or a “fair tax.” American history has already proven this.
While it may be justified in a theoretical sense, America’s massive redistribution state cannot be abolished with the stroke of a pen. Not even the staunchest libertarian really wants to see Social Security, Medicare, or public welfare turned off tomorrow, with the poor and elderly left to fend for themselves. However, to be committed to limited government means to be committed to working towards eliminating these programs, not reforming them. This may take generations to accomplish, but we must first at least acknowledge that they have to go.
What we can do right now is end our worldwide military empire. Unlike the social programs, this would not mean short-term hardship in exchange for long-term gain. Getting our soldiers out of the 130 countries that they are stationed in would provide an immediate benefit both to the United States and the rest of the world. Proponents of the empire would argue that a sudden withdrawal of our troops would “destabilize” the regions that they are stationed in, but this is absurd. The presence of troops does not provide stability. It inspires resentment and provokes the inhabitants to retaliate. Without a troop presence in the Middle East, the motivation for terrorism would quickly fade. It is much easier to recruit suicide bombers when you can show your recruits armed troops in their own neighborhood than it is trying to convince them to give their lives to stop women in some far off land from wearing mini-skirts. Does anyone really believe that this is why they want to kill us?
A little simple arithmetic will demonstrate that even eliminating all military spending would not allow us to pay for our welfare state. The total military budget is around $700 billion, while Social Security and Medicare alone are over $1 trillion, with Medicaid adding $400 billion more. This does not even take into consideration all of the smaller programs for housing, education, medical research, “infrastructure,” energy, agriculture – all of these programs violate the principle of limited government for the same reason that Obamacare does. Added together, the vast majority of non-military federal spending is some type of wealth redistribution. It would seem that there is no equitable way out.
The answer lies in revisiting the “fair share” idea. Unlike taxation, there is no such thing as a fair share of benefits derived from other people’s money. We must recognize that in order to undo the century of damage we have done to our society, some people are going to have to pay out more than they receive in benefits. We could certainly come up with a plan whereby people my age, in their mid-40’s, would only be guaranteed catastrophic coverage through Medicare and reduced payments from Social Security, both payable only with a demonstrated need rather than as an entitlement. This would allow new workers to get out of the system altogether and finally restore limited government and true social justice. Would it be fair? No. Neither is the status quo. However, it would lead to prosperity and justice for our children. The status quo will lead us to our destruction.
This is only one strategy and I am sure that smart people could come up with others. As the old saying goes, the first step in solving our problem is admitting that we have one. If we want limited government, we must recognize that it is far more than Obamacare or welfare for the poor that is violating the law of nature. Let us continue to oppose Obamacare, but let us also acknowledge the vast amount of work to do even after this new incursion into our liberty is vanquished.
© Thomas Mullen 2010