Big government vs. small government. This is a discussion that has been repeated ad nauseum in political campaigns and debates to become almost cliché. Are you a democrat, a fan of big government, which (depending on your perspective) is an unnecessary intrusion into our everyday lives, or a necessary institution to level the playing field for the less fortunate? Or are you a republican, a fan of small government, which (depending on your perspective) champions individual freedom and responsibility, or allows the rich and powerful to gain and maintain an unfair advantage over ordinary citizens?
I would argue that those who frame the discussion in such black and white terms aren’t looking at the complete picture, or to be more direct, have a vested interest to ensure that YOU aren’t looking at the complete picture. Instead, I would claim that it is important to not look at all ‘government’ the same way. Our system of government was established with many layers: federal, state, local. They each have different responsibilities, and can and should perform different functions in different ways with different efficiencies.
In summary, I think that the best approach is a federal government that is limited in scope, but also empowered to act decisively and efficiently regarding tasks within its scope (such as national defense or disaster relief), with a more empowered state government and even more empowered local government to handle most issues that impact local citizens on a day to day basis (such as education or zoning).
Now, many who argue for ‘small government’ might state that this is pretty much what they mean, as when they say ‘small government’ they really mean ‘small federal government’. And that is fine to a point, as long as they are sincere in this train of thought. This had been an effective shorthand for my way of thinking on this matter for many years. More recently, however, I’ve come to notice that some who champion small government really do have more local entities in mind as well. For example, in my industry (civil engineering), we frequently interact with state and local governments on a variety of issues. In Texas, the primary local government entity associated with the services that my company provides is the Municipal Utility District (MUD). MUDs (which fund, manage, and maintain water, sewer, and drainage facilities), function in effect like very small cities for these functions, typically in suburban areas outside the city limits of major cities in Texas, and in effect give much more timely and efficient service than the large cities they surround. MUDs are regulated by the state legislature, and so representatives of our industry pay close attention when the legislature is in session (which in Texas is for a few months every two years).
Increasingly over the last few years, and especially over the last couple of sessions, MUDs have seemed to be a target of several ‘small government’ advocates in the legislature, even though, MUDs, by definition, should be the very embodiment of ‘small government’. What has become clear to me is that some who claim to champion ‘small government’ really aren’t in favor of small government, they’re in favor of ‘no government’ (that isn’t controlled by them). Fortunately, for now, this way of thinking hasn’t completely taken hold in this area, and for the most part, MUDs are allowed to function as intended, this is one small example of an issue that I think bears watching going forward in any ‘small government’ vs. ‘big government’ debate that you may see going forward.