There is a practical difference underlying the philosophical divide between Small Government enthusiasts who want to place societal welfare responsibility on individuals and the generosity of the wealthy, and Big Government types who want to place such programs in the hands of the state: in the former case how things fare will be based on personal strengths, the luck of the draw and the kindness of strangers; in the latter the people affected have a voice in voting for their representatives and framing the laws that will determine the redistribution of resources. While it is imperfect, I trust a system in which I have a direct say over trusting in an oligarchy any day. In some sense, the difference between Nanny State and the Rich Uncle Economy is that you can fire and hire a nanny; you’re stuck with your uncle.
When it comes down to it I suppose I’d be pegged as either a social democrat or a democratic socialist, I reject pure socialism and communism, the former because I have only limited (though real) trust in government, and the latter because I don’t think it works at levels much past a farm, commune, or monastery. I avoid particular party affiliation, and am not registered in one, though I do think, as this all suggests, that the role of government is crucial in the proper redistribution of wealth; a notion I fully support, since I have insurance, pay taxes, and contribute to my church. Some of this is voluntary, but I would have no difficulty with it being mandated, so long as I also have some say in the laws framing the redistribution.
If one were to take the alleged principle behind the Small Government argument to its logical conclusion, you would have only home schooling, people would only build the part of the road outside their house — and only if they have a car and need it; there would be no public libraries or parks or utilities; and so on. Those who favor absolute anarchic capitalism as a matter of principle are few and far between. Most “Small Government” people, including the Tea Party, are basically unprincipled — that is, there is no philosophical foundation to their belief, just a pragmatic notion that less is more, but the less always includes, “I want done what I want done, and not what I don’t.”
To those who say that private charity should be the dominant form of public welfare, I would say that while I think private charity has a role to play, I cannot put my trust in such adhocracy. So I want a voice in the process and think it is part of the government’s responsibility to provide certain services, or at least to coordinate them. (I’m not a pure socialist at heart, and don’t trust in complete government control.)
Part of my reason for this is that relying on charity only works if you assume people are inherently charitable. I wish that were true, but it isn’t. Left to themselves, people tend to accumulate wealth rather than sharing it. Some countervailing force needs to step in to insist people share or “redistribute.” There was a time when the church had the power to be that persuasive force; but now it has to be the government, in part because of the rise of pluralism. Only the government has a kind of universal sway in society — no other institution has that ambit. One only needs to look at the period from the late 19th to the early 20th century to see what happened in the era between Big Church and Big Government, including a world-wide depression caused in no small part by greed.
Let’s face it: Anyone who buys insurance really believes in the redistribution of wealth to minimize personal risk. I honor and respect those willing to hold to a true anarchic position, such as those religious sects who forego Social Security and only help their own. But this is by its own definition a sectarian solution, and not workable for the nation as a whole.
Tobias Stanislas Haller
originally published in similar form at Facebook, where it evoked a lively discussion