Critiquing Political Rhetoric: “Big Government”

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.

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Critiquing Political Rhetoric: “Big Government”

  1. “….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. …”

    That is not really an argument, it is merely an observation. One could just as easily observe that a rapist and a rape victim also hold ‘differing concepts of individual rights, and how strong one’s right to property ought to be’. (property in this case being one’s own body).

    According to your logic a man in court charged with rape can simply excuse himself of any rights violation by pointing out to everyone that *in his opinion* a woman has no rights over her own body, which allows him access to her most private parts without any violation of rights occurring. Problem solved!

    Let’s imagine that you are a supporter big government and I am not. What does that actually mean in reality? It means that you are willing to threaten me with violence so that I obey your big government’s rules and theft of my wages. And if I resist it means you are willing to use extreme violence to have me physically dragged off from my family, my career, and my home and locked inside a cage. And if I resist (or if I attempt to escape the cage you put me inside), you are willing to beat me with clubs or even shoot me.

    And so we can clearly see that if you support ‘big government’ you are not interested in discussion, debate or negotiation. Discussion, debate and negotiation are (by definition) peaceful, civilised activities which can ONLY take place in a setting which is free from coercion and violence……and it is quite clear that by advocating ‘big government’ you have pulled out a gun and aimed it at me.

    When the *initiation of force* is part of the equation there can be no debate. You can debate with a girl about the two of you having sex, putting forward your argument as to why this would be a very good idea. But you cannot have a debate with her about rape if you plan to rape her – you can only PRETEND to have a debate, before carrying out your plan and raping her. Rape means forcing sex onto someone against their will – with no debate!

    Likewise, you cannot debate the subject of a big government if you plan to support it – you can only PRETEND to have a debate about it, before carrying out your plan and violently coercing everyone around you via the paid thugs of your big government. Big government means forcing your political objectives onto other people against their will – with no debate!

    • Actually, I did hint at an argument in the next sentence with the notion of reasonableness, although I could have fleshed it out more. Either way, my argument was not that “Big Government” was justified, but that labeling people who support “Big Government” as opposed to individual freedom and rights is destructive of debate and questionable, as most supporters of “Big Government” see themselves as defenders of individual rights and freedom. Furthermore, due to the fact that people disagree about the nature of rights wouldn’t it be better to have a frank, open yet respectful debate about the issue, rather than simply shutting down debate by saying that your opponent against individual freedom and rights. If all reasonable people agreed that individuals have an unlimited right to acquire private property you might have a point, but in the face of this disagreement, one needs to have an open debate to see if a mutually agreeable solution can be reached. The rape case is fundamentally disanalogous as no reasonable person could think rape does not constitute a violation of a person’s rights. So, it is not simply that opinions differ, but rather that reasonable people who have thought long and hard about the issue differ on this, and therefore one has to have a debate to figure out a plausible, mutually agreeable solution.

      I don’t want to get into a debate about the foundational issue of what rights we have, as I do not have the time for that, but nothing you have said really touches the point that I have made about the use of the term “Big Government.”

      • “… Either way, my argument was not that “Big Government” was justified, but that labeling people who support “Big Government” as opposed to individual freedom and rights is destructive of debate and questionable, as most supporters of “Big Government” see themselves as defenders of individual rights and freedom. …”

        I understand, and I don’t mean to come across as contrary or confrontational. I’m sure many people who argue for Big Government genuinely believe they are reasonable and civilised.

        But my point is that believing you are being reasonable and civilised is not necessarily the same as actually *being* reasonable and civilised. I’m sure you’d agree that if a given behaviour is reasonable, civilised and morally justifiable then we should have no problem with describing it frankly, without feeling any need to skirt round the issue and hide behind euphemisms.

        A Big Government can only be achieved through theft, coercion and violence (the initiation of force). That is not an opinion or a judgement, it is just a fact. The money needed to pay for Big Governments is so vast it can’t be raised through taxation alone, it must be obtained through government borrowing which is deferred taxation – or to put it another way the taxed earnings of future generations. To a large extent a Big Government is paid for by the wealth generated by the, as yet, unborn.

        People are of course perfectly free to make their case that this is a morally acceptable way to behave in a civilised society, but what they can’t do is pretend they’re not advocating theft, future theft, coercion and violence whenever they advocate Big Government, because they obviously are.

        Without initiating of force against other people (theft, coercion and violence etc) a Big Government is simply not be achievable. Without killing a cow a beef burger is also not achievable. You can’t have one without the other.

        If you (I mean any voter out there) advocate for the state and their agents to behave a certain way towards me (as your elected representatives) then that is the same as behaving that way towards me in person. And so if you advocate for an elected representative (such as a political party) to demand I fund their/ your schemes each week (even if I strongly object to them) and if you support them sending armed men round to my house to threaten me or even kidnap me and put me in a cage if I disobey their/ your orders, that is no different (morally speaking) to you making those demands and threats directly to me in person.

        Equally, buying a beef burger from a supermarket is the same as killing and butchering a cow yourself…. at least it is as far as the cow is concerned.

        Now here’s the crucial bit….. how many people do you think would actually be prepared to come round my house and actually threaten me with violence to make me obey them and fund the things they wanted? And if I refused to obey their demands how many would actually pull a club,taser, gun on me and resort to actual physical violence against me?

        I’d say probably about 0.1% of the population.

        This proves that most people do NOT advocate Big Government when push comes to shove. They only believe they do….. because they’ve never really thought about it properly (again, we might draw a comparison with someone who eats beef burgers every day but has never fully connected this behaviour with the slaughter of real, live cows).

        “..Furthermore, due to the fact that people disagree about the nature of rights wouldn’t it be better to have a frank, open yet respectful debate about the issue….”

        Yes that would be fine by me.

        “….. rather than simply shutting down debate by saying that your opponent against individual freedom and rights…”

        I am not the one with a gun in my hands making threats, so I don’t see how I can be the one shutting down debate.

        Let’s imagine we’re having a civilised debate with coffee and sandwiches (or hamburgers and beer) and on another table we lay out some clubs, tasers, guns and handcuffs. During the debate whenever we find we have different opinions about how to spend our hard earned cash we can choose to respect each other’s opinions, or we can choose to pick up a weapon of choice and threaten the other person until they surrender to our threats, and failing that we can just beat them up, restrain them and put them in a cage and then take their money anyway.

        As I already said, if the Big Government tactics of theft, coercion and violence are indeed reasonable and civilised, then advocates of Big Government should have no problem whatsoever with using those tactics to achieve their Big Government.

        But should they find the idea of initiating force against me (or anyone else) so immoral and objectionable that they can’t bring themselves to do it then they will know that are not advocates of Big Government after all.

        “…The rape case is fundamentally disanalogous as no reasonable person could think rape does not constitute a violation of a person’s rights. …”

        Yes it is a coarse and vulgar comparison (that was the whole point). Initiating force against someone else to achieve your objectives is always upsetting and nasty.

        “…So, it is not simply that opinions differ, but rather that reasonable people who have thought long and hard about the issue differ on this, and therefore one has to have a debate to figure out a plausible, mutually agreeable solution….”

        Fine. I welcome debate. I only object to theft, coercion and violence, which (as I already explained) is the opposite of debate.

        “…I don’t want to get into a debate about the foundational issue of what rights we have…”

        I don’t think a complex debate is necessary. In our everyday lives I bet we share exactly the same moral stance with respect to theft and the initiation of force….. namely that these are immoral and socially unacceptable ways to behave in society which can never be justified.

        How many times a week do you actually threatened someone with violence, or steal from them, in order to fund the things you wanted?

        For 99% of the population the issue here is not morality, the issue is moral consistency/ moral integrity. Or to put it another way, the issue is how susceptible we are to government propaganda which tells us that immoral and destructive behaviour conducted *on our behalf* by government agents somehow becomes the exact opposite.

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