The term “Big Government” is often used by the American Right to suggest that anyone who is for “Big Government” is necessarily opposed to individual freedom and individual rights. This use of the concept of “Big Government” is harmful to political dialogue because it covers over the actual disagreements between those who endorse “Big Government” and those who oppose it.
I will begin by noting that “Big Government” simply refers to a state that intervenes to a large degree in society. Now do those who favour “Big Government” actually oppose individual freedom and individual rights? It seems to me that in fact there is no inherent tension between being a supporter of individual freedom and individual rights, and “Big Government.” To explain why this is the case I will examine two possible arguments for why” Big Government” might be opposed to individual rights, and argue that neither of these establish a necessary tension between “Big Government” and individual rights and freedom.
Firstly, one critique of” Big Government” notes that because “Big Government” requires greater taxation than smaller government, supporters of “Big Government” must be opposed to individual rights, because greater taxation necessarily violates a strong right to private property. Let us call this the proprietarian critique of “Big Government.” The problem is this critique of “Big Government” depends on a contentious conception of individual rights in which one cannot be coerced to monetarily support societal imperatives without fundamentally having one’s property rights violated. However, this conception of individual rights is not something that all reasonable people can be expected to hold, and thus it is completely reasonable for someone to believe that individuals have a weaker right to property that is not sullied by high levels of taxation. The disagreement between the proprietarian critic of” Big Government” and the supporter of “Big Government” is not that one is for individual rights and the other is not, but rather that they hold differing conceptions of individual rights, and how strong one’s right to property ought to be.
Secondly, another critique of “Big Government” is the idea that as government becomes larger and intervenes more in people’s lives it will be more likely to endanger their rights. Let us call this the slippery slope critique of Big Government. This critique however does not show that proponents of” Big Government” are unconcerned with individual rights and freedom, because someone can perfectly consistently recognize this danger, and say that the benefits of “Big Government” are worth it, despite the dangers. Likewise such a proponent of “Big Government” can also support such devices as the rule of law, separation of powers, and third party watchdogs to ensure that the dangers that “Big Government” poses do not erode its citizen’s liberties. It is an empirical question whether “Big Government” actually does endanger the rights of people and history does not seem to suggest that “Big Government” tends to leads to the dissolution of individual rights and freedom within constitutional liberal democratic states. Most Western European States that are characterized by “Big Government” have not experienced much erasure of individual rights and freedom, despite the expansiveness of the initiatives that the state undertakes.
Consequently, there does not seem to be any tension between supporting “Big Government,” on one hand and supporting individual rights and freedom on the other. Many people in both America, and Europe are strong supporters of individual rights and freedom, and supporters of “Big Government.” The position that these people hold is not paradoxical rather it results from disagreements about the nature of individual rights, how dangerous “Big Government” actually is to individual rights, and whether there are constitutional devices that can prevent a strong state from endangering the freedom and rights of its citizens. Consequently, when the American Right use the term “Big Government” to suggest that those that favour a more interventionist state are opposed to individual freedom, they are falling to the level of mere polemic and not actually talking about the actual disagreements they have with proponents of “Big Government.”
Now, let it be known I am not a blind partisan of “Big Government.” The society that “Big Government” creates is problematic in many ways, but “Big Government” has no necessary opposition to individual rights and freedom, and thus opposing it, on the grounds that it is necessarily corrosive of individual rights and freedom is dubious at best.