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The Great Political Issue of Our Time

By Oliver DeMille

1913 was a banner year for the United States.

During this year the 16th and 17th Amendments were passed and the Federal Reserve was created.

Students of American freedom have long debated about the damaging effects of these three occurrences. The year 1913 also marks the modern start of a long trend of increased spending by government, not only in the United States but across the rich world.

In 1913 the average government spending of 13 rich nations (as a percentage of GDP) was just above 10%. That is, the rich governments of the world spent about 10-15% of what the people of the country made.

Today the number is roughly 50%. In the last century, to summarize, the rich nations have increased government spending from just above 10% of the people’s labors to a cool half.

The percentages went down a bit during the Clinton years, and it was President Clinton himself who said that the era of big government is “over.” But it made a comeback in the Bush years and even more in the Obama era.

Half the product of the nation? To run the government? Clearly the era of big government is not over. It doesn’t even appear to be slowing down.

As the liberal publication The Economist put it:

“…despite all the rhetoric from the tea-partiers, big government is not just the fault of self-interested bureaucrats and leftist politicians. Conservative voters, even if they don’t like taxes, have kept on demanding that the state does more.”

Liberals claim to want bigger government and they vote for it; conservatives often claim to want smaller government, but they still vote for a lot of big government programs—from military and education to more police, prisons and protectionism. Both left and right have refused to cut entitlements.

So government spending continues to grow. Voters create “revolutions” demanding smaller government, and the government—whether led by conservatives or liberals—increases spending. And so it grows….

And grows, and grows. Even many liberals are now deeply concerned:

  • “The state almost everywhere is big, inefficient and broke.”
  • “[I]ncome inequality is fracturing our economic landscape.”
  • “Slimming the state is not an easy conversation. But consider the alternative: an even fatter state, ever less freedom and ever higher taxes.”

Part of the problem is described by David Zinczenko:

“Way back in the early 20th century, when our grandparents were kids, America was a different place. Grandma and Grandpa didn’t have the modern conveniences we have today—cellphones and iPads and Skype and laproscopic surgery and refrigerators with crushed-ice dispensers on their front panels. But there was one modern annoyance they didn’t have to put up with either: the expert. Today we’re lousy with experts.”

The Economist now proclaims: “How to slim the state will become the great political issue of our time.” The title of that article is, “Taming Leviathan,” and the reference to Leviathan is appropriate.

Hobbes argued that there are really only three possible arrangements for human society:

  • The chaos of pure license where there is little or no government and the weak are preyed upon by the strong.
  • The conflict that occurs where government is small or limited: while the people have some areas of freedom in life, competing individuals, businesses and governments bring a lot of hardship on the regular people.
  • The solution of a true Leviathan, a government so big and powerful that it controls everything and everybody and allows no pain or problems.

Without going into how many ways Hobbes is wrong, let’s just be clear that even if he were correct about these being our three choices, the second (with all its problems) would still be the best. Trying to take away human freedom in order to end all human problems is the great flaw of the many failed utopian plots.

Of course the world can be improved, and certainly government can play its role. But it is up to the regular people to really make the world better—and far too often through history, governments have been the biggest or at least a significant cause rather than the solution to the world’s ills.

Governments are different from other institutions because they hold the accepted power of force. Therefore, they must be carefully watched and effectively limited or they wreak havoc in the world. Government has probably caused more pain and problems than any other human institution; in fact, it is through government that the other major tyrannical institutions of history (cruel aristocratic classes, dominating churches, etc.) have hurt and tortured and controlled.

Hobbes was correct, however, that without good government, the strong typically prey upon the weak. It is because of this that people banded together and established government to protect inalienable rights. This is precisely why government was invented.

And let’s get one thing straight: Accomplishing this does take 7, 10, 13 or maybe even 17 percent of the nation’s product, but it does not require 35, 43, or 52 percent. If it is costing that much, the people have lost control of the government and their freedoms are in jeopardy.

If “how to slim the state” really is the great political issue of our time (and it is, whether we admit it or not), the great question is whether the regular people will get deeply involved in finding the answer.


Oliver DeMille is the founder and former president of George Wythe University, a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd Online.

He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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