Libertarians and Republicans are typically more distrustful of government than Democrats. However, recent events may be making Democrats think twice. Since the 2016 election, many Democrats have bemoaned the power that President Trump has wielded or will wield.
Welcome to the party, my lefty friends. Distrust of government is a longstanding and healthy characteristic of American culture.
The Problem is Big Government
Whether your personal policy preferences lean left or right, Big Government is the problem. As mentioned elsewhere on this site, Big Government reduces dignity and prosperity. That’s bad, of course. But even if you don’t agree with that statement, Big Government is still a problem.
Big Government is capable of doing things you don’t like. Democrats don’t like the idea that Trump can issue so many executive orders. They worry that a Trump executive branch will assume too much power. I share those concerns.
However, such behavior did not start with President Trump! President Obama issued lots of executive orders and ruled by executive fiat in many ways. He publicly proclaimed, “if Congress won’t act, I will.”
Although Obama was a particularly avid practitioner of rule by executive fiat, this behavior didn’t start with him, either. The administrative wing under the executive branch has been expanding in scope and power for decades.
The Administrative State
The problem with this expanded ‘administrative state’ is that it has taken on significant rule-making power that should properly reside with Congress. This causes two types of mischief:
- It blurs the line between legislative and executive power, weakening the separation of powers. Congress is generally supposed to make the laws (legislative power) while the executive branch under the President is supposed to ensure that laws are properly enforced (executive power). The expanded administrative state mingles these powers instead of separating them, with the executive branch making lots of rules as well as enforcing them.
- It weakens the accountability of government to the people. Members of Congress are elected, so they are more accountable to voters. Most members of the administrative state are not elected, so they are less accountable to voters.
Separation of Power
Why should we care about the separation of powers, aka checks and balances? Because it helps preserve our individual liberties. The purpose of separation of powers is to make it more difficult for any one person, department, or branch of government to dominate and abuse our freedoms.
When we weaken the separation of powers, we harm the rule of law, constitutional government, and the preservation of our individual liberties. This is bad stuff, whether you prefer policies of the left, right, or center.
Unfortunately, when bad behavior is repeated often enough it can become the new normal. Executive orders and an increasingly powerful administrative state become usual and typical.
Political power is a slippery slope, and many politicians naturally wish to accumulate as much power for themselves as possible. As Acton said, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thomas Jefferson also warned us that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.” No doubt this has been proved true by history. All of this serves as a warning against the slippery slope of expanding government.
Government Can Turn Against You
Here’s the thing: government agencies and structure that you like today can be turned against your preferences tomorrow. This could even rise to the level of totalitarianism, but I’m just talking about when government starts to do things you don’t like.
For example, Democrats might like it if President Obama abuses his power to impose new pro-environment rules by executive fiat. But this means that President Trump can also abuse his power to impose new anti-environment rules by executive fiat.
For example, Democrats liked it when Senator Harry Reid blew up the Senate filibuster rule in 2013, because it enabled Senate approval of President Obama’s nominees without any Republican votes. But now a few years later, President Trump’s nominees can be approved without any Democrat votes, and Democrats don’t like that as much.
The point is, whether you are Democrat or Republican, government is capable of changing later and doing things that you don’t like.
How to Minimize the Risk
Here are a few thoughts on how we might approach this issue:
- Since the apparatus of Big Government may later be turned toward policies that you don’t like, it makes sense to not lay the foundation of Big Government in the first place. Be very cautious about supporting any expansion of government power, regardless of which political party is pulling the strings.
- The risk of totalitarian government is ever-present, even if it’s a small risk. So don’t lay the foundation for it. It’s easier to reach totalitarianism from a starting point of Big Government than from a starting point of small government, so avoid Big Government.
- Don’t cheer on Presidential lawlessness if he tries to bypass Congress, even if you like what he is trying to accomplish.
- Don’t complain that American government is slow to act. Understand that it is slow by design, and the slowness protects our individual rights from fickle government.
- Don’t blindly assume that Big Government is always good, or that government will always pursue policies that you love. Ask yourself how much power you would want to give a government official if their views changed to become diametrically opposed to yours. Support giving government only that much power, and no more.
Regardless of whether we prefer Democrat or Republican policies, we should respect the structure of Rule of Law and limited constitutional government. The structure is important in and of itself because it protects the rights of individuals. We should respect and cherish this structure regardless of which party currently holds power, and whether government pursues policies we love or policies we hate.
This will protect your future rights. It is also intellectually honest. It is selfish and short-sighted to support unlawful or unconstitutional government action for the sole reason that it pursues your preferred policies. The end should not justify the means.
The bottom line is that if we make government small, we minimize the twin risks that (A) government will later be turned toward policies we don’t like and (B) that government will become totalitarian. As an added bonus, we will also enjoy greater prosperity!
Remember the old saying that a government big enough to give you everything you want is ALSO big enough to take away everything that you have. Politicians come and go, but our distrust of government power should be eternal. That distrust should cross party lines.
I encourage you to enter comments or questions below. Two rules: 1) be reasonably polite, 2) address the issue and avoid personal attacks.