This post comes as a special occasion, one that breaks a short dry spell. In the past week, I have been confronted often by the phrase “a government is best which governs least.” This quote, created by Thomas Jefferson and elaborated upon by Henry David Thoreau, was partially inspired by the Mexican-American War and slavery, along with the revolutionary war. However, it has become a rallying cry for conservatives of today against any and all expansions of federal government size. This phrase can only be buoyed by two tenets: that smaller governments are better and more efficient, and that larger governments do not work and are rife with inefficiency. These beliefs trouble me deeply, seeing as they call into question the very social contract made long ago. Government exists because it can and does help people, and because people can unite together to solve common issues. This wave of attack against government in general is a highly threatening concept, one which owes itself in part to anarchism. While I can see the problems of inefficiency and corruption, expanding government size does not guarantee further troubles. In order to dispel the great fallacy of the quote mentioned above, I have decided to attack both of its tenets. In this first part, I will obliterate the belief that small governments have a better chance of functionality and less opportunity for corruption or inefficiency.
A big rallying cry of conservatives of days past was states’ rights; this was a big part of the arguments going on whilst our constitution was being written. Because the United States were founded after breaking free from a tough monarchy, many felt that widespread political freedoms would be best suited to the new nation. At the time, this was seen as a justified cause. It was believed that the formation of states with powers against the federal government would prevent tyranny, a great fear of our founders. However, there has always been a limit to how much power the states can have; the Articles of Confederation more than proved that point. This system of governance only worked because of the Revolutionary War, when the states had a common enemy to motivate against. Without Britain striking America down, the states pointed themselves in widely separate directions. The federal government had very little power at all, and the union was very nearly dissolved. As such, a constitution was made to expand the federal government and preserve the union. Yet the struggle for state powers would continue for over a century since then, from the presidency of Thomas Jefferson to the Civil Rights movement. And while the question of states’ rights still pops up from time to time, it is now largely ignored except during elections.
The trend of American governance, while slow, has been towards expansion of the federal government. There was a time when public parks were decried as socialism. Nowadays, no person would even try to argue against their existence. Why break this trend in order to empower states? After all, we often tout ourselves as the world’s remaining superpower; do we not owe our success to our federal government and its progress? And while the time has passed where states’ rights arguments threatened our nation’s existence, the importance of the issue has still laid other marks upon the United States. The question of states’ rights has been called upon during times of great stress. The two moments I will look upon are the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was primarily the fault of a stock market crash and the following results from it, which went unmitigated due to laissez-faire economic policies up until that point and the fact that markets cannot correct themselves all the time. The sheer inequality at the time became unstable, and the result was an enormous crash that devastated the world. Herbert Hoover had been elected just months prior to the crash, and then promptly did nothing about it. And so, our nation spiraled into Depression immediately, and the situation became horrible very quickly. Only in 1933 did things begin to improve with the election of Franklin Roosevelt, who would endorse the New Deal which would vastly increase the federal government size and scope. While the Depression would last through much of that decade, it was not nearly as bad with these programs in place. However, at the time there was significant backlash against the new policies; those who know American history well remember Roosevelt’s clash with Congress over the Supreme Court, which FDR had threatened with his court-packing plan (http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/about/history/CourtPacking.cfm). Fears of heightened executive influence over the judiciary spread to Congress, which saw this as a future threat to the elected representatives of the states. While not thought of now, this represented a dark fear which the states had to deal with at the time. If the president could force justices to retire, why couldn’t he do the same to Senators? Of course, the measure failed, but nevertheless the Supreme Court from then on began to agree more often with the liberal point of view on issues. The needs and desires for federal power had been met.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was primarily concerned with racism that had become de jure in the southern states and de facto in the northern states. And while most people remember those years as being a step forward in race relations alone, a large part of why the South wanted to maintain Jim Crow laws was state power. Once the Civil War and Reconstruction had ended, the only federal statute on racism was that no race could be made into slaves legally. Of course, it was still quite easy to repress those of color anyway. Poll taxes and literacy tests kept most blacks from voting, and segregation of schools and neighborhoods kept blacks from attaining a secure and equal lifestyle. Religion also played a part, seeing as churches and other religious institutions of the day didn’t want to perform interracial marriages. Martin Luther King Jr.’s position as a reverend certainly helped in that aspect. Yet, back then much of the argument against ending segregation was that the states should be able to pursue their own policies towards race as long as the federal government does not pass laws that inhibit said policies. Since churches banned interracial marriage, the states should not have to let them happen, no? No. While religious freedoms are important to us, there is a fine line between freedom and dominance, especially when the civil rights of minorities are concerned. As such, civil rights legislation was passed to force the end of segregation by Jim Crow laws. The call to arms of states’ rights was once again silenced. And we are far better off for it.
And now, for my final point. A government which regulates its economy the least is not necessarily the best either, although I consider social issues to be typically more important. I’ve already shown how having no regulation can destroy our economy through the example of the Great Depression, so I’ll be taking a brief look at other nations to back myself up here. Namely, Somalia and Ireland. Why those two? I choose Somalia to make a sharp yet immediate point; the nation of Somalia is the pinnacle of failed states. The country has not had a fully-operating federal government since 1991, and suffers under some of the worst conditions imaginable. The black market dominates the Somalian economy, and Al-Shabaab retains significant strength throughout the southern portion. The autonomous northern portion, claimed as Somaliland, has only had mixed successes in stability. Somalia has one of the smallest and least active governments known to man, and said country is often considered one of the worst places to live in the world. I think my point is clear. As for Ireland, I point to the Irish as an example of what happens under Republican economic recommendation. When the Irish crisis hit, they did everything the Republicans have been stressing. They cut public pensions and froze paychecks, weakened national unions, released economic regulations even further, etc. And yet Ireland still required a bailout. Ireland still suffers more harshly than the rest of the European Union, if only because they took the wrong path. As such, deregulation of the economy and removing government influence does not necessarily cause improvements.
And so concludes this first part, and in the second part I will seek to prove why larger governments can be a good thing. I hope I have provided a good analysis on my part, and I encourage you to ask questions or comment on my work here in the comments section. If you would prefer other means of communication, my email at firstname.lastname@example.org is still active, along with my Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ accounts. That is all for this week, and I am signing off.