Do You Belong to the Church?
By Arnold Kling
Make a list of five to ten social issues that you feel are important. Next, make a list of five to ten social issues that you think government should stay out of. What is the intersection of those two sets? If it is zero, then you probably belong to the Church of Unlimited Government. If every social issue you care about (not just the top five or ten) is one where you want government to deal with it, then you definitely belong to the Church.
Suppose, for example, that you think government should stay out of the issue of marijuana smoking. You don’t think that people should be arrested for smoking pot. That only gets you out of the Church of Unlimited Government if you think that marijuana smoking is an important social problem. If your thinking is “marijuana smoking is not so bad,” then you’re still in the Church.
You see, I think that the overlap between liberals and libertarians is somewhat suspect. The libertarian thinks that government should get out of the business of regulating marijuana primarily because the libertarian believes in limited government. The liberal thinks that government should get out of the business of regulating marijuana because the liberal doesn’t think marijuana is such a problem.
From a libertarian point of view, it would be inconsistent to advocate legalizing marijuana and banning trans fats. A liberal would not see any inconsistency.
I’ve got some other angles on this, below.First, what about someone who wants to keep marijuana illegal but does not want to ban trans fats? Such a person could very well belong to the Church of Unlimited Government. I am not necessarily going to exempt conservatives from membership. But more on that later.
Do you remember the flap recently about the airline that was going to charge for carry-on luggage? And then a Congressman said we need to pass a law saying that the airlines cannot do that? Now, the merits of the issue are debatable (as a passenger, I think I might actually prefer to fly on an airline that charges for carry-on luggage), but that is not the point. Even if we all felt really strongly that charging for carry-on luggage is evil, are we willing to say that government should stay out of the issue, on principle? The libertarian says that indeed the government should stay out of it. The member of the Church does not. Again, being ok with government staying out of it gets you libertarian points only if you care about the issue. If you are ambivalent about charging for carry-on luggage or you think it’s a really minor issue, then it’s not in the set of social problems that you feel are important.
I bring up the carry-on luggage example because to me it illustrates the relative strength of the forces for limited government and the forces for unlimited government. From my standpoint, the idea of regulating the pricing of carry-on luggage is nutty as a fruitcake. But it seemed perfectly normal to most people–certainly to most of our “thought leaders.” It seems to me that I belong to the Dissenting Church, and the established church is the Church of Unlimited Government.
I doubt that anyone would come out and say, “I am for Unlimited Government.” But I think there are a lot of people who would have a difficult time coming up with issues that they care about where they also believe government should not get involved. Thus, the Church of Unlimited Government is real, even if no one would say they belong. And it is the established Church.
If you missed it, here is my previous post on this topic. I think this issue is at the heart of a lot of ferment on the Right these days.
Would I say that the overlap between libertarians and conservatives is suspect, in the same way that the overlap with liberals is suspect? I’m open to such an argument. To give another example, many conservatives appear to see a distinction between an import quota on Mexican products and a quota on Mexicans coming here to work. A libertarian would not see such a distinction (or might regard the ban on workers as worse).
Still, I believe that it ought to be possible for a conservative to be in the Church of Limited Government rather than the Church of Unlimited Government. In theory, I would think that a conservative might really care about education or health care without necessarily favoring government involvement. However, in practice many conservatives went along with President Bush when he expanded Medicare and the Federal government’s role in primary education. My sense is that his approach to conservatism has few adherents at the moment.
One way to view the divisions on the Right these days is that there are those of us who want to pick a fight with the Established Church and there are those who do not wish to do so. To some folks, picking a fight seems too radical and destabilizing. To other folks, not picking a fight seems too much like surrender.