topic for our discussion this afternoon is "Why Limit Government?"
I am tempted to give you the shortest speech you ever heard--just
two words: "Why not?!" Yet such a flippant comment would persuade
no one of anything and win no battles for liberty. Indeed, our
movement may be overdue for a refresher on this very important
men and women who want to "limit" government, we sometimes come
across to others as naysayers. As someone once said, we do a better
job describing Hell than Heaven. Whenever we make the case for
limiting government, we ought to use the opportunity to remind
others that we are opposed to excessive government because we are
in favor of some very positive, important things. We want to limit
government--ultimately--because we support freedom and the free
want to limit government because we want to maximize opportunity,
enterprise and creativity.
want to limit government because we want to permit individuals to
go as far as their talents, ambitions, and industry can take
want to limit government because we want people to dream and to
have the room to bring those dreams to fruition--for themselves and
want to limit government because we want to strengthen the
institutions of civil society that tend to shrink as government
grows--institutions such as the family, church, synagogue, mosque,
community, and the many voluntary associations that Alexis de
Tocqueville recognized as the bedrock of American liberty and
want to limit government because we have learned something from the
thousands of years of experience with it; that it ought properly to
be confined to certain minimal, but critical, functions and
otherwise leave us alone.
Let's not forget that as a movement, we
must remain committed to core principles. We can't be like that
character, played by Groucho Marx, who declared, "Those are my
principles. If you don't like them, I have others!"
The Core "Core" Principles
regard to government, at the "core" of our core principles are
these unassailable truths: Government has nothing to give anybody
except what it first takes from somebody, and a government that is
big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take
away everything you've got.
older I get, and the more I observe the political process, the more
obvious it is that it's no way to run a business--or almost
anything else, for that matter. The deficiencies, absurdities, and
perverse incentives inherent in the political process are powerful
enough to frustrate anyone with the best and most altruistic of
intentions. It frequently exalts ignorance and panders to it. A few
notable exceptions aside, it tends to attract the most mediocre
talent with motives that are questionable at best. Government runs
on the political process; hence, all of the problems endemic to
politics show up in what government does and doesn't do.
Indeed, the more that the political
process steers government into areas beyond its principal mission,
the less well it does those few things (like public safety) that we
all expect it to do for us.
"Whatever It Has To Be"
in 2001, the ninth son of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, Max Kennedy,
flirted with the idea of running for political office. A story in
the New York Times Magazine recounted his ill-fated attempt at a
stump speech riddled with trite one-liners like these: "I want to
fight for all of you. I'll commit myself heart and soul to be the
kind of congressman who cares about you. I'll dedicate myself to
fighting for working families to have a fair chance. I make you
this one pledge: I will always be there for you."
Kennedy's handler pressed him repeatedly
for a "take-away message," something of substance that his audience
would remember. "What do you want people to take away from it?" he
asked several different ways. The would-be candidate stammered and
couldn't think of much other than "I'm a nice guy," until finally
he admitted, "I don't know. Whatever it has to be."
this man eligible for public office? Certainly, though in this case
the subject fizzled out before his campaign was ever lit and he has
presumably found useful work elsewhere. Hundreds just like Max
Kennedy get elected every year. Yet, would it ever occur to you to
put someone who talks this way in charge of your business? Outside
of politics, is there any other endeavor in which such nonsense is
The Silly Side of Politics
Welcome to the silly side of politics.
It's characterized by no-speak, doublespeak, and stupid-speak: the
use of one's tongue, lips, and other speechmaking body parts to
sway minds without ever educating them--and to deceive them, if
necessary. The serious side of politics comes afterwards when the
elected actually do something, even if--as is often the case--it
bears little resemblance to what they promised. It's serious
business in any case because it's the part where coercion puts
flesh on the rhetorical bones. What makes a politician a politician
and differentiates politics from all other walks of life is that
the politician's words are backed up by his ability to deploy legal
force on their behalf.
is not a trivial point. After all, in the grand scheme of life
there are ultimately only two ways to get what you want or to get
others that have hired you (or who depend on you) what they want:
You can rely on voluntary action (work, production, trade,
persuasion, and charity) or you can take it by force.
A Dangerous Servant
generation ever grasped the meaning of this better than that of
America's Founders. It was one of our Founders who declared that
"Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force. Like
fire, it can be a dangerous servant or a fearful master." In other
words, even when government is no larger than what our Founders
wanted, if it does its job so well as to be a true "servant," it's
Indeed, it is on this point that all the
difference in the world is made. Things that rely upon the regular
affirmation of voluntary consent don't look at all like those that
rest upon force. Whereas mutual consent encourages actual results
and accountability, the political process puts a higher premium on
the mere promise or claim of results and the shifting of blame to
win or keep your patronage and support, a provider of goods or
services must manufacture something of real value. A business that
doesn't produce or a charity that doesn't meet a need will quickly
disappear. To get your vote, a politician only has to look or sound
better than the next one--even if both of them would renege on more
pledges than they would keep. In the free marketplace, you almost
always get what you pay for and pay for what you get. As a
potential customer, you can say "No, thanks" and take a walk. In
politics, the connection between what you pay for and what you
actually get is problematic at best.
What Is a Vote Worth?
is another way of asserting that your vote in the marketplace
counts for so much more than your vote in the polling booth. Cast
your dollars for the washing machine of your choice and that is
what you get--nothing more and nothing less. Pull the lever for the
politician of your choice and, most of the time (if you're lucky),
you will get some of what you do want and much of what you don't.
The votes of a special interest lobby may ultimately cancel out
yours. As someone much wiser than me once said, "[P]olitics may not
be the oldest profession, but the results are often the same."
These important distinctions between
voluntary, civil society and coercion-based government explain why
political Max Kennedy-types are the rule rather than the exception.
Say little or nothing, or say silly things, or say one thing and do
another--and your prospects of success may only be enhanced. When
the customers are captives, the seller may just as easily be the
one who whispers seductive nonsense in their ears as the one who
puts something real on their plates.
it or not, people judge private, voluntary activities by a higher
standard than they do public political acts. That is all the more
reason to keep politics in a small and isolated corner of our
lives. We have many more productive things to tend to.
an eye toward strengthening our efforts to limit government, let me
offer these brief tidbits, each of which is worthy of much greater
discussion and many more specific examples than I have time for
- Our side must
work harder to relate to real people. No green eyeshades,
dollars-and-cents-only stuff. We have to show how limiting
government actually improves lives. We must put a human face on the
issue by not only showing how runaway government inflicts real harm
on real people, but also how the free society can produce a more
abundant life for all.
- Our side must
get smarter with our rhetoric. We should not allow
ourselves to get bogged down in debating the fine points of every
proposed government expansion. We need to remind people that
government, as a share of our personal income, is consuming five or
six times what it did a century ago. We should be demanding to know
from our Big Government friends why that is not yet enough. We
should embarrass them by asking them to publicly reveal how much
more they really want, and at what point they will finally
acknowledge that what a person earns belongs fundamentally to him,
and not to the government.
- Our side must be
strategic, investing more in the issues in which small
victories can mean a lot. Issues that come to mind are school
choice, private retirement accounts, and state government budgets.
When we win those battles, we will start to win across a broad
front of issues.
- Our side must be
convinced that it can win. We must be optimists. Pessimism
is not only unwarranted, it is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. If
you think the cause is lost, it will be. No one works hard for a
cause they think will lose. We need to convince the world that if
anything in human affairs is inevitable, it is that humans will be
the free beings their Maker intended. It is not inevitable that
they will be ruled by know-it-alls. History is on the side of
liberty, not statism.
other words, limiting government is a lofty endeavor. It's good,
honest work. It's a powerful message when presented well.
let's get out there and get it done.
Lawrence W. Reed is
president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. These remarks
were delivered in Chicago, Illinois, at the 27th annual meeting of
The Heritage Foundation's Resource Bank.