A Rebuttal to “Small Government” Conservativism?

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Many “centrists” I know don’t think too much of the “smaller government” rallying cry of many conservatives. This mantra sounds well and good, as anyone can recognize the government’s ineptitude in handling all sorts of affairs, and the free market’s myriad benefits. However, the free market has always faced criticism for what is called “market failure”—the inability of the market to take certain types of consumer preferences into account, the lack of information regarding various kinds of externalities created, the maximization of long term rather than immediate concerns, etc. And, given that we now have a full-blown international economy, it certainly seems that a truly “free” market is out of the question. After all, our founders envisioned a largely local and agrarian economy, limited to towns or, at most, the individual states. To get where we are, we made mincemeat of the interstate commerce clause and the non-delegation doctrine (the doctrine that prohibits Congress from delegating law-making authority to agencies—which it now does with impunity), to the chagrin of conservatives and originalists.

My question is, do those same conservatives and originalists who decry the expansion of our federal government into all matters of our economy really want what seems to be the only logical alternative: a return to the decidedly localistic economic recipe espoused by the antebellum Democratic party? [More...]

Without big government, certainly we would have to abandon most of our environmental efforts, leaving this to the individual states’ discretion. Most if not all of the administrative agencies would have to be disbanded. Certainly, there would be fewer asinine regulations to contend with. But without a single federal regulatory system, companies will be forced to contend with 50 different state systems of asinine regulations. This may give fidelity to the text of our Constitution, but it would be a nightmare for business.

It seems safe to say our founders did not thoroughly consider this issue. It could hardly have been imagined the extent the technology in the following centuries would bring the states and world into a necessarily united economy. It probably could hardly have been imagined that the Union would endure that long. At any rate, I submit that the question of expansion of our federal government into all manners of our economic life has not been subjected to an appropriate analysis. Instead of treating this as a constitutional issue, which I believe it is, we have at all times simply presupposed that economic prosperity is the sine qua non of our republic—that as long as our economy is flourishing, our country is succeeding. Is that truly the case? At what point do we look at government expansion and say, even though this will clearly advance our collective prosperity, it should not be done? Is there such a line?

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