Sunday, September 6, 2009

What determines the size of government?

Here's an editorial in today's The Oklahoman that asserts that Americans are ready to debate the cost and size of government.

While this - if true - is welcome news, it fails to address the underlying cause which guides the choices people make in such areas. That cause, of course, is morality, and Americans' choices regarding the size and cost of our government will be influenced by their views regarding morality: are individual human beings capable of living their own lives by their own efforts, or must human beings sacrifice their individuality to be their brother's keeper? Should individuals be free to discover and create their own value, or is that value something to be imposed on them by outside forces?

Political freedom implies an individualism that at least acknowledges the possibility that selfishness could be a value. It is an ethical regard for individual life that leads to individual rights in politics, and the proposition that government is legitimate only when it is limited to protecting those rights.

Altruism holds that the self must be sacrificed, which leads to collectivism. A society which recognizes no ethical boundaries between individuals has no need for rights - and no boundaries on the size of government. If an individual won't sacrifice his self voluntarily, what's to stop anyone from forcing him to do so?

What Americans desperately need to consider - and, yes, to debate - today is not merely the cost and size of government, but which is the proper morality: altruism or rational selfishness?

I have written a letter in response to The Oklahoman's editorial.


  1. Burgess Laughlin once mentioned something along these lines before. He suggested that it doesn't really matter if government is small or big, only if its recognizing individual rights. Theoretically speaking, a government could be quite big as a percentage of GDP and still dwell within the realm of moral behavior as long as it remains rights-respecting (say if we were waging an expensive war with an enemy regime a la the Pacific theatre during WW2).

  2. Michael - I think fighting a war qualifies as a temporary or at least short term situation - assuming that the war is being fought with the correct strategy - WW2 is a perfect example.

    During such a war government could expand, at least in terms of expenditures, for the duration and then shrink back when peace resumes. And I don't know if government as such would expand - certainly the military would.

    War aside, I just don't see how a properly "rights-respecting" government could get very big.


  4. Too bad whoever left the address for the Facebook page of the Undercurrent Campus Media Response did not leave their name so I could thank them. I don't know if it was an invitation or a suggestion - either way, I'm flattered.

    While I am not a college student and am hard pressed to keep up with the writing I do find time for, I believe this is something that would be right up the alley of the Rogers State University Objectivist Club. I think I'll head over to their Facebook page right now . . .