Limited Government as Insurance
By Bryan Caplan
Imagine going back in time to January 20, 2009. Obama’s Inauguration Day. You’re a cheering fan. On that day, an angel appears and makes you this offer: If you give up on Obama’s best ideas, none of Trump’s worst ideas will happen either. Obamacare will never happen – but neither will Trump’s immigration policies. Would you take that deal?
I know, it’s a galling hypothetical. You want the good stuff without the bad stuff. Why can’t that be on the menu? In theory, of course, it could be. But in practice, it wasn’t – and never has been. If government has the power to do big good things you like, it will also have the power to do big bad things you don’t like. And in a democracy, your side’s grip on the reins of power is always temporary. (Anyone want to re-bet me on the duration of Unified Government in America?)
On reflection, the angel in my hypothetical is offering insurance. He’s guaranteeing a stable mediocre outcome, rather than the wild democratic oscillations we’ve been experiencing. You’ll no longer be able to get excited about great political victories, but you can stop worrying about great political defeats.
Now consider: This insurance policy is very similar to a seemingly unrelated idea: limited government. While it doesn’t invalidate any existing government policies, it shackles government’s power to do any big new thing.
In American political culture, conservatives have traditionally praised “limited government,” though libertarians are the main people who take it seriously. But it seems like almost everyone, regardless of ideology, should be interested in getting insurance against bad future uses of government power. What are the best reasons to spurn the angel’s offer?
1. The arc of the moral universe. If, like MLK, you believe, “The arc of the moral universe of long, but it bends towards justice,” you’re not just avoiding bad stuff by giving up good stuff. You’re avoiding a shrinking stock of bad stuff by giving up a growing stock of good stuff. If you’re going to eventually win anyway, insurance isn’t so important.
2. Asymmetric hyperbole. Political rhetoric normally paints your good stuff as great, and your opponents’ as awful. If you’re overstating across the board, the case for insurance remains intact. Suppose, however, that your good stuff is genuinely fantastic, but your opponents’ bad stuff is only a moderate pain the neck. Then again, accepting limited government for insurance purposes is a bad deal. (The insurance case for limited government gets even stronger, of course, if you oversell your own policies, but accurately rate your opponents’ policies).
If neither of these responses seems especially credible, you’ll probably feel tempted to impatiently respond: “This is a stupid hypothetical, because there are no angels.” Sure, it would be nice to contain the oscillations of democracy. But there’s no way to do it. Limited government has to be enforced by someone – and the “someone” is democratically determined, too, right?
Wrong! If you want the insurance of limited government, there are well-tested mechanisms to deliver it. You all know them. Supermajority rules require more than a majority to act. Division of powers makes it hard for government bodies to accomplish anything on their own. Judicial review allows judges to invalidate acts of government. Federalism greatly reduces the cost of “voting with your feet.” If you think these institutions aren’t working, the obvious solution is to strengthen them. Impose more supermajority requirements. Divide more powers. Overturn legislation that fails to get support from six, seven, eight, or all nine Supreme Court Justices. Make states pay for their own spending with their own taxes, not federal grants.
So why are the limits on government so weak? I blame myopia. Limited government helps everyone in the long-run, but immediately hurts the ruling party. They fought hard to win power; now that they have it, they yearn to flex their muscles. Logically, they could support limited government starting ten years from now (“Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”), but that’s not very exciting compared to riding the wave today. The insurance of limited government would make most of our lives better, but sadly, it’s not sexy.