Whose side are you on?

By Michael Freedman

Imagine a debate between two people. One is arguing for a Purple society and one for an Orange society. The Purple society advocate insists that the purple society would pass purple policies and employ capable purple officials. The orange advocate insists that what society needs is orange policies and orange principals.Whose side are you on?

The correct answer to this question is, of course, neither. The words “orange government” and “purple government” mean nothing, and any debate about which is better will be equally meaningless.

The Big Government vs. Small Government debate is, for all intents and purposes, equally meaningless. The terms “big government” or “small government” imply that there are some thresholds that if government size is bellow it is “small” and if above it is “big”. That threshold has never been established; units to measure the size of government have never been established. If there is a way to know what big or small government is, it is not well known.

Here is another way of looking at it. If big government was generically better or worse than small government, than at some point government size (however this is measured) would have passed a critical threshold where in every additional agency, regulation, and bureaucrat would have made the government either continuously less or more effective. A trend this clear has yet to emerge, meaning that there is probably no clear way to define big and small government.

The meaninglessness of the “big vs. small” debate can be seen empirically as well as theoretically. The number of post-New Deal government employees, as well as government spending, tends to increase regardless of whether a conservative or liberal is in the Whitehouse. Whether a president has professed to be “small government” or not does not seem to affect how big or small government gets.

So what we have here is a debate, the terms of which are impossible to define theoretically and the effect of which seams near impossible to measure empirically.

Now the obvious response to this is something along the lines of “duh”. I feel as though most people know that big vs. small government is not itself a policy debate, but is a stand in for a series of smaller and more complicated debates. Arguments for and against “big government” were actually arguments for and against healthcare last winter, and were arguments for and against the bailout in 2009. These arguments seem to stem from a perfectly understandable place, wanting to define the role of government before making a policy. The problem is that now the debate about big vs. small government is no longer a precursor to policy debate that takes on all the complexities of issues like healthcare. Big vs. Small is the debate itself. Candidates this season have figured out that it is easier to pick up votes by waxing poetic about big government vs. individual freedom than it is to debate the pros and cons of Freddie Mac’s loan modification programs. The problem is that we really really do lose something when we take a debate about the former and assume it is a good stand in for a debate about the latter.

Let’s go back to the debate I started this editorial with. It would not be hard to imagine the orange vs. purple debate spiraling into a long series of tangential discussions, and the overall meaninglessness of the debate getting lost. One could identify that both colors contain red, and thus the debate is really about whether blue or yellow is better. One could point out that the sun is orange and that’s pretty cool, so maybe we should go with orange. This could be followed by a debate about whether the sun is really orange. None of these debates translate into policy, but it shows how one meaningless debate can facilitate another.

It’s hard not to see a lot of the rhetoric in this election season in a similar light. Instead of talking about specific provisions of healthcare reform, candidates get poll numbers by yelling about what Washington or Jefferson would have wanted in an attempt to justify their big or small government stances. Candidates are not held accountable for their positions on derivative reform, only how passionate they are about liberty. This is not a good basis for a vote. If a party is into small government, I can gather that they do not like healthcare reform, but it does not give me a clue as to what they would do instead. Because the big vs. small government debate has taken on a life of its own, independent of policy, it has excused policy maker form talking about policy.

That’s really really bad because, in the end, these are the people we are electing to make policy. A person should not get to hold political office because they are the most poetic about “making government work for you” or about “the pioneer American spirit”. Governing is much more complicated than that.