by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In politics, scale matters. If government spent 1 percent of GDP annually, we’d probably still have waste, fraud, abuse, self-dealing, and all the rest of it, but it would matter less to people. From a moral point of view, a little misuse of public resources is no different from a lot of it, but adults know that the world is not a perfect place and that we’d be lucky to have problems that bug us symbolically or as a matter of principle while causing us very little trouble in fact. That is the inadequately appreciated background to the current dispute over the NSA’s surveillance programs.
On one side of the debate, we have those who prioritize national security — on the left and on the right — who argue that the world presents such intense dangers that the government must be given certain tools to address them. On the other side, we have those who prioritize civil liberties — also on the left and on the right — who argue that our government has shown that it cannot be trusted with some of those powers. The problem is that both sides are correct. Yes, we need to take very strong measures against jihadists and other mortal threats, and no, our government does not give the appearance of deserving our trust with the weapons in its arsenal. …
… Limiting government improves government operations in two ways, one obvious and one less so. The obvious way is that by limiting the scope and variety of government activity, we can focus limited resources — including that most limited of resources, human intelligence — on the functions that are inherently governmental, such as physical security in the form of police, military, border controls, and the like. This is in conservative thinking complemented by the principle of subsidiarity, which allows for a greater scope and variety of government action as one travels down the scale from national to state to local to sub-municipal government. A homeowners’ association can be annoying, but it is not Leviathan. Moving from California to Texas, or from the Katy school district to the Humble school district, is a much less disruptive undertaking than immigrating between countries. It is for that reason that so many American conservatives admire the government of Switzerland, which has a gift for devolving politics.
The second and less obvious way in which limiting government strengthens government is through the elusive and irreplaceable commodity of trust. Like true love and home-grown tomatoes, trust in political institutions cannot be bought or manufactured. It is organic and fragile.