Why Shrink Government?

There are a number of ideas we hear from conservatives which are never explained (at least, I have yet to read a clear explanation; most of the conservative writers I’ve attempted to read are so full of contempt for those who have not yet drunk the punch that they render themselves illegible). They include anti-regulation rhetoric, anti-anti-poverty rhetoric, and anti-government rhetoric. Chief in the lattermost category is the idea to “shrink” the government.

The idea is famously recorded by the Norquip (25 May 2001 on NPR’s Morning Edition):

I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.

The conservative position is that government stinks. That it is a fetter upon the economy. That taxation is a form of theft, robbing everyone of their hard-earned money to provide something they don’t want at a price they can’t afford.

By shrinking government, the thinking goes, they will reduce the harm. People will suffer less tax. The economy will do significantly better. A one-two punch: less tax plus more income. People will have more freedom, particularly to spend that extra money.

Here’s precisely where I get lost. They do not attempt to handle the harm. No talk of pandemic conditions. No discussion of the hapless fools too poor or unlucky that get sucked into the turbines of an economic engine roaring to produce supersonic growth conditions. The best you can get is some hand-wave toward churches that will pray away the pangs of hunger.

But millions of voters find it in their hearts to keep electing these Freedom Caucus types. No regard for the reason government exists, they would happily repeal any regulation just to get another stamp on their conservative-loyalty card.

In all fairness, the image of a gargantuan government comes easily to the imagination. But then, so is the lawless waste, that state of nature. The chief problem with the shrink-government trope is that most of the country is past that sort of thinking.

It’s not a question of bathtub-ready government or beast-sized government. It’s not even a question of right-sizing anymore. It’s just a question of, for any particular program (public or private), with any set of inputs and outputs, is there a better option. And these conservatives are unwilling or unable to engage in that sort of discussion, which is why they should not be involved at all. They should be voted out until they can help with the problems at hand, instead of trying to always return to some fetishistic first-principles analysis of why we should never have left the caves in the first place.

Anyone who really wants to shrink government can start by investing in poor economies so that we won’t need as much aid, military, or border security. The smartest way to accomplish the downsizing is by attrition of the need for the spending.


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