Arguments for Big Government

In The Democratic Wish, James Morone argues government should not only be big, but strong as well. Yet, according to Morone, the government has been restrained from being strong by the American people. As he puts it, “The urge to protect ourselves from our own elections is an ironically anti-democratic stance for Jefferson’s heirs (335).” In particular, he draws attention to the efforts of anti-government activists who argue for a weaker government with the arguments of the Federalists on page 336. In contrast to the position of these anti-government activists, his most important argument is how a strong government is contingent to the protection of civil rights and freedom.

Professor Douglas Amy, a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College, makes a similar argument on his web project Government is Good. One of the sections of his website is titled “Government Protects Our Rights” where Amy details the considerable ways in which a strong government protects our rights [1]. Before continuing, it is worth considering what exactly a right is. Conservatives have generally defined rights as a negative, that is, a restriction on government interference [2]. The freedom of speech is an example of this. Positive rights, then, require government action in order to realize them, such as the Affordable Healthcare Act. Yet Amy, citing Stephen Holmes’s and Cass Sunstein’s book, The Costs of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes, argues all rights require government action. In the words of Holmes and Sunstein:

“Personal liberty cannot be secured merely by limiting government interference with freedom of action and association. No right is simply a right to be left alone by public officials. All rights are claims to an affirmative governmental response. All rights, descriptively speaking, amount to entitlements defined and safeguarded by law. A cease-and-desist order handed down by a judge whose injunctions are regularly obeyed is a good example of government “intrusion” for the sake of individual liberty. … If rights were merely immunities from public interference, the highest virtue of government would be paralysis or disability. But a disabled state cannot protect personal liberties, even those that seem wholly “negative,” such as the right against being tortured by police officers or prison guards.”

Like Morone, Amy, Holmes, and Sunstein argue for a strong government as contingent to the preservation of democracy. Morone argues “Genuine democracy requires a popular government that can act.” Amy, Holmes, and Sunstein would not disagree with this assessment. Indeed, Amy cites Holmes and Sunstein again, “it is implausible to be ‘for rights’ and ‘against government.’ …All-out adversaries of state power cannot be consistent defenders of rights, for rights are an enforced uniformity, imposed by the government and funded by the public [3].”

Amy is not naïve about the flaws of government. He admits the government errs, such as with the Patriot Act as one example, yet argues government abuses have been ultimately fought and overturned with the government’s help. As Amy discussed, any appeal to fight an injustice involves some aspect of the government, usually the courts, which ultimately requires the financial support of the American people through taxes.

Like Morone, who presented his case that government fostered civic groups rather than crowded them out, Amy also argues government has created more freedom in contrast to anti-government activists who argue more government is less freedom (338). Amy, like Morone, criticizes the jeremiad of the right-wing, stating, “Their ideology assumes that the private sector is the realm of freedom and the public sector the realm of oppression. So they continue to point at the public sector as the source of threats to our rights, while in many ways, the main threats exist in the private sector. The average citizen is much more likely to have their rights violated in the workplace with phone taps, video surveillance, or drug tests, than they are to be beaten by the police or to have their house illegally searched by federal agents [4].” According to Amy, the flaw in the free market ideology lies in the hierarchal institutions where superiors in these institutions possess power over the lives of their lessers. Without government to serve as intermediary, the low man or woman on the totem pole is at the mercy of his or her higher-ups. Thus, I agree with Amy that contrary to the narrative employed by libertarians and other anti-government activists, the free market does not bring freedom, but instead a rigid pecking order of masters and servants determined by the economic differences of the haves and the have nots.

Amy concludes his essay by listing some of the protections government provides against the institutions and systems that rule our lives. He argues only government has the ability to provide meaningful freedom through its power on behalf of the citizenry to work for the protection of the citizenry from those who would exploit them. Like Morone, Amy argues we need a strong, big government in order to maintain what Morone calls “genuine democracy”. Since all rights require an active government in order for their continuance, a strong big government is the best means of accomplishing this. Therefore, we should support a strong big government.

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1 Response to Arguments for Big Government

  1. cindylyon says:

    Wow, such a thought provoking post! In this day and age, arguments for big government are few and far between. The right-wing ideology had become commonplace and, like you mentioned, the free market is paralleled to a free space or freedom. When that is far from the truth in many cases! You tap into this when you said that citizens are just as (if not more) likely to have their rights violated in the workplace than in a public space. This ideology becomes more dangerous when you consider that there is not holding businesses/corporations responsible for violating these rights. In fact, it is much more common-and I would argue, easier-to prove if/when the government violates a citizen’s rights. There are multiple safeguards in place to protect citizen’s from the government, but do we have the same for the private sector? And even if we did, who would protect us from the private sector? Well, the government of course. You said it best when you said “but a disabled state cannot protect personal liberties.” It seems as though we have shot ourselves in the foot.

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