The Hollow Shibboleth of Limited Government
by Brian Maher
by Brian Maher: The
Arctic Seems To Be Warming Up
government." I wedge the term between the tongs of quotation
marks for a reason.
is of course a term that sounds eminently agreeable. Who professes
open belief in unlimited government anyway? Even those who
do believe never admit it. "Limited government" is a credendum
of right-thinking, echt Americans.
I can’t stand the term. Here’s why.
government" is a hollow shibboleth, meaningless for all practical
purposes. Never before has so many used a term so often that meant
so little. The term is invoked with the same rote mindlessness with
which I used to say grace as a religiously indifferent but invigilated
limited to what, exactly? How does one define it in the 21st
century? No one ever really says. Perhaps it can be likened to Supreme
Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 definition of pornography –
you know it when you see it. Some see it when top marginal tax rates
sit at 36% instead of 39%. Others when federal spending is limited
to 20% of GDP, as opposed to 25%. Opinions vary.
reality, nobody save a corporal’s guard of paleoconservative and
libertarian types embrace a limited government worthy of the term.
And they don’t seek high office. Nor would many fall in behind them
if they did.
the proverbial guy next door if he believes in limited government.
He will probably answer heartily in the affirmative. After all,
the term still strikes a resonant chord deep within the American
to ask him if he thinks Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the
Department of Education – for example – should be eliminated. Not
reformed, but eliminated. Ask him if he’d prefer greater retirement
benefits or limited government. Greater health care benefits or
limited government. Saving the planet for Christ’s sake –
or limited government. So much for his belief in limited government.
Then there’s the politicians.
things excite my risibilities as the spectacle of one of our national
fuglemen gibbering about limited government before mouthing a commitment
to saving Social Security or Medicare. Not mild bemusement but paroxysmal,
head thrown back, mouth wide open, sidesplitting laughter! Or perhaps
I am too far gone in cynicism. I concede the possibility.
government." In addition to being useless the term is duller
than dishwater and precisely as inspiring as an Alan Greenspan lecture
on accounting practices. It excites as elevator music excites. We
hear it and offer polite applause. We nod our heads dutifully. It
makes sense, it appeals to our sense of logic, we know it’s the
right thing – but how boring.
were two great orators of antiquity, the Roman Cicero and the Greek
Demosthenes. When Cicero spoke the people said, "What a great
speech." When Demosthenes spoke, the people said, "Let
one marches for limited government. No one goes to the barricades
for limited government. They do for "Health Care for All,"
"Save the Planet" or "Social Justice Now."
are cris de coeur that awaken
the blood. They summon our adrenaline. They’re calls to action that
inspire us to run off and enlist. Limited government inspires us
to…nothing in particular. "Limited government" is a terrible
marketing slogan. You wouldn’t want to have to sell it for
government" is essentially a shifting line in the sand, erased
and redrawn as circumstances demand. During the 1930s critics of
the New Deal sang funereal dirges about the eclipse of limited government
in America. Rightly so. The damage was extensive, if not fatal.
World War II followed in its train. See Randolph Bourne on the relationship
between war and the state.
national security state burgeoned during the 1950s. To heap Pelion
upon Ossa, the Great Society came along in the 1960s, riveting big
government onto the nation to stay. To talk of limited government
after that point was to talk of such things as unicorns.
even now – even now – the point bears emphasis – many believe the
United States remains a cynosure of freedom and limited government
to which all divergent rays tend. Conservatives still croon about
our wondrous system of limited government and how it is only now
under such menace from Obama and the Democrats. As if the New
Deal, Great Society and over seven decades of statist jurisprudence
never even happened.
have little doubt that twenty years hence, long after Obamacare
is as sacred a cow as Social Security, conservative types will be
thundering about our great system of limited government and how
it will be lost to time if the Democrats win the next election.
The 2032 election will be "the most important in our lifetime."
Just like the 2008 and 2012 elections.
cardinal sin of limited government is this, and I realize I am hardly
breaking new ground here. "Limited government" is defensive.
The political Left is always on about some crisis to be scotched
by energetic government action, be it the environment, health care,
housing, race, income inequality, bedbugs – you name it. They are
forever pressing the attack.
the bien-pensant progressive crowd is commonly perceived
as the angels on our collective shoulder and the champions of the
common man, they find themselves uniquely positioned atop the commanding
can you just sit back and do nothing while there’s so much suffering
going on,’ pule our moral betters. ‘People need help. Government
can stand up to that? No one wants to wear the black hat. No one
wants to be accused of indifference to a suffering humanity. Certainly
not when elections hang in the balance. In consequence, limited
government types are always on the back foot. They can only react,
having completely ceded the terms of battle to the other side.
No successful defense can forever remain static, however.
cede ground year by year, decade by decade, making one tactical
retreat after another. They give a little here to gain a little
there. But they lose ground in the aggregate. The limited, constitutional
government that fires the minds of so many conservatives has died
the death of a thousand cuts along the way.
closing, since conservatives esteem Burke so highly they should
heed his counsel: "The true danger is when liberty is nibbled
away, for expedience, and by parts." Pretty poignant stuff,
that. Liberty has been nibbled away. For expedience. And by parts.
Many of us never even noticed. We still don’t, and won’t until it’s
too late. Tyranny often approaches on cat’s paws.
Maher [send him mail] is
a freelance writer living just outside of New York City.
© 2012 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.