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Another Thought on the Size of Government

More often than not, the discussion of bigger versus smaller government comes down to arguments around:

  1. paying more or less in taxes
  2. individual rights versus the greater good

I’m just as guilty as everyone else for minimizing the discussion to these points.  However, something I read this weekend reminded me that what often gets lost in the discussion is that the argument for smaller government is really about individual responsibility.  I have touched on it before – especially as it relates to parenting and education. But, it’s worth revisiting again.

I believe that the vast majority of people in this world are good.  I believe that given the opportunity to do what’s right and just,  most people will do the right thing. If they see somebody in need, they will lend a helping hand, not because they are required to by law, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Of course, this isn’t just something I believe, it is something I see re-affirmed everyday. I see it every week when adult volunteers step up to coach community children in various sports or help out in classrooms. I see it when I look at the good works done by various religious and social organizations. I see it when people write checks to support the needs of the homeless, the hungry or special needs children along with many other very worthwhile causes.

Unfortunately, one of the problems with continually growing the size of government is that it erodes this sense of individual responsibility to provide solutions to the challenges facing our communities.  If we continually increase taxes to take care of everything, it is not long before we as individuals no longer feel personal responsibility to be part of the solution.  Instead, we begin to feel that we’ve paid our taxes to support [fill-in the blank], so our part is done.

However, the reality of the situation is that in a great many cases, the government solution to solving the same problem is inefficient and overly bureaucratic.  Primarily, this occurs because whenever government is involved in providing a solution the one thing that is guaranteed to follow is regulation upon regulation mandating “how to do it right.” Those mandates lead to investment in compliance as opposed to solving the problem at hand. Interestingly enough, when it comes to compliance, most people will seek to do the minimum required.  Yet, ask those same people to volunteer to solve a problem, and they will work on it until it is done.

So, back to what triggered this post. Former Congresswoman Heather Wilson posted a recent speech on her Facebook wall that she gave at the Air Force Academy, which included the following statement:

In my experience in the Congress, it seemed to me there were two kinds of people in public life: those who want to be somebody and those who want to do something. 

I’d argue that this doesn’t just apply to those in Congress. It extends to everyone. Being somebody is easy, and in the grand scheme of things, meaningless.  Andy Warhol noted, “In the future everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Now, there is some fame (i.e. being somebody) that lasts more than fifteen minutes, but despite the duration, if it is not coupled with doing something, it is equally meaningless.

Getting elected to public office, transforms you overnight from “nobody” to “somebody.” The same is true for a professional athlete or movie star.  But, “being somebody” is fleeting. Once you’re gone, your fame is irrelevant. Sure, there are those whose legacy continues beyond their life, but it is not because they were somebody as much as they did something – made a contribution to society that impacted people’s lives.

Larger and larger government removes the motivation to truly do something and make a contribution. It shifts the drive to do something from the people to the government.  It attempts to rob us all of the pleasure and satisfaction of individually making a lasting contribution. In history, every “great” society that has gone down this path has ultimately collapsed to a shell of it’s former self. It’s time for the pendulum in this country to shift back to acknowledging the value of the individual before it’s too late.