An Unconstrained Culture
If you live in modern America, then you probably noticed that much of America is dysfunctional. Go to any major American city or much of rural America; you’ll find numerous broken homes, rampant drug use, and hollowed-out downtowns.
Those statistics—and many others like it—do not depict a vibrant, thriving nation. That much is clear.
Crumbling American communities—in both rural and urban America—have coincided with the rise of our “favorite” bogeyman: Big Government.
Big Government is one of Mainstream Conservatism’s favorite bogeymen.
Growing up in the conservative movement, we’ve all heard the same bromides about Big Government from Young America’s Foundation and PragerU. Big Government is inherently bad, and small government is inherently good. Simple enough, right? Well, it’s not that simple in reality.
We can’t just complain how we just wish that Big Government could just go away. Pragmatically, the bloated bureaucracy is not going away anytime soon. Many American voters like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—whether we like it or not. Neither Republican nor Democratic politicians have any incentive to curb the power of the Federal Government.
Ranting about low taxes at CPAC or on Fox News is missing the point (as most mainstream conservatives do on nearly every issue). We need to have a more nuanced discussion about big government in the conservative movement.
Now, I am not advocating for Big Government controlling every aspect of our lives. However, the political Right’s conversation about Big Government is overly simplistic: a generic “don’t tread on me” attitude. Most conservative talk shows and politicians talk about how we need to get the American government of out of our private lives/business.
I have rarely heard about why Big Government exists. Why does it exist? That question is the key tp understanding the existence of Big Government.
So, it seems to make more sense for conservatives to reflect on the cause of Big Government.
You might have heard that that FDR and LBJ administrations (i.e. the New Deal and the Great Society) are the main culprits for Big Government. The answer to that theory: incorrect.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the US federal government only spent $184 billion in 1968—which was the final year of LBJ’s administration.
Fifty years later, the federal government spent $4.497 trillion in 2018 under the Trump administration.
So, it wasn’t a single presidential administration or policy that caused Big government to exist in America. Instead, the road to Big Government was a gradual process over the last century.
Nevertheless, I still haven't the original question Why does Big Government exist in modern America?
Here's my take: Big Government arose from the collapse of the American family and civil society.
Big Government exists to hold together a barely functioning society. Let’s take a stroll and see the role of Big Government in modern America.
In America, the government steps in to take care of kids in broken homes. Federal government programs—such as SNAP, Medicaid, etc—financially support single-parent households across the nation. Similarly, state governments spend loads of money on struggling public schools in communities lacking strong families. Some schools in America function more like a daytime holding pen for children than a safe learning environment.
American cities are needing to spend more money on policing to deal with heightened crime. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant in many American cities—small and large. Homeless encampments have made many downtown areas unsafe and unsanitary.
The list goes on and on. Sadly, many rural and urban America communities are unable to function properly without government intervention.
The Way Forward
Now that we’ve covered the likely cause of Big Government, how do we move forward?
I look to writers/academics Charles Murray and Robert Putnam for how we can move toward self-governance and away from Big Government: strong families, strong Churches, and strong civil society. Those three aspects of society are key to a thriving, self-governing people.
Up until the last 40-50 years, American culture generally maintained strong institutions and a traditional family structure. The tough question here is how do we make families and civil institutions “great again”?
The more libertarian, mainstream strain of American conservatism would generally say that the government has no role in promoting the formation of the traditional family or Christian morality/virtue.
On the other hand, the populist/America-First strain of political conservatism is more willing to use government power to promote the welfare of the American people. In fact some populist commentators have pointed to the pro-family policies of Hungary as an example of successful government intervention.
I personally subscribe to the former opinion over the latter. Libertarian attitudes toward economics, culture, and morality have not helped preserve the traditional American society. Measured action from conservative lawmakers appears to be the best way to fix the problems of the American culture in the near-term. It might not be the perfect solution, but we have to play the hand that we’ve been dealt with.
I'll end with this quote: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." -John Adams
Limited government and self-governance can only exist when families/communities exhibit moral virtue and discipline. Without it, Big Government will come in to provide stability for an unstable society.
I hope this post provided thoughtful discussion on the topic of Big Government. Take care and God Bless!
This post was written by the editor of the TIn Can Conservative blog. The Tin Can Conservative blog publishes weekly articles about American politics, culture, history, and faith.