Limit government, and govern well

Authored by Gabriel Green

A couple of weeks ago at SPN’s 31st Annual Meeting in Chicago, I got the chance to hear former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels speak. In his remarks, he touched on something I don’t think comes up enough in modern conservative dialogue.

For context, I wasn’t familiar with Daniels’ career before hearing him. So, I’ll share the same relevant information I gleaned from listening. He is a traditional small-government Republican, whose term in Indiana included several actions testifying to his commitment to limiting government.

Over the course of his remarks, in addition to several jokes at the expense of Illinois and Chicago, the most important point that the former governor tried to hammer home was a potentially unpopular sentiment for a conservative audience. It could be summarized as:

“Whatever responsibilities you leave to government, no matter how limited, ought to be performed well.”

I was struck by his comments because, unfortunately, I’ve heard far too many people on the conservative-side-of-the-spectrum sound almost gleeful at the failures of government. Sure, I’ll be the first to tell you that the government is almost always the worst agent of action for solving almost any problem. And yet, there is a reason we don’t live in total anarchy; we instead allow ourselves to be limited by a formalized-monopoly-on-vengeance called a “nation,” and its agents of action we call the “government.”

So, it’s important that government be well-run, or that nation-under-which-we-live is going to suck. This is especially true in the United States, where the government is literally “of the people.” Or, to use a line from Bill and Ted to describe government in the United States, “It’s us, dude.”

When government fails in the United States, we have failed. Often this is because we have placed the government in charge of something it has no business running. But government in the United States also fails because of other things like apathy, partisan sabotage, and crony capitalist corruption. When government in China fails, at least the people don’t have to say, “we put all of those folks in charge.”

When government fails in the United States, we have failed.

That said, I’ll take having to own up to the failures of my government in exchange for all the personal freedoms I enjoy. After all, because government in the United States is of the people, it is our great privilege to limit its control and avoid the easy-trap of tyranny that comes from over-empowered rulers. Furthermore, our system of divided government and constitutionally-enshrined-localism (aka: Federalism) grants us a further barrier and layer of protection from tyranny.

When functioning properly, states and their subdivisions of counties and cities are themselves capable of solving most types of public problems that typically fall to the responsibility of “government.” This means that in these United States, we not only get to choose what our government does and doesn’t administer, but we get to have greater control over the administrators themselves by keeping them close to where we live. That is, when our country is functioning properly…

But, even when it’s not functioning properly — such as today when both major political brands seem obsessed with DC-based “solutions” — we shouldn’t celebrate governments’ failure. We should attempt to fix it, sure, but not wallow in schadenfreude spouting “I told you so.”

Many of the federal governments’ flaws — and even those of the state and local governments — are themselves caused by the government extending itself into realms it cannot properly administer. We should work to reign in the areas in which government – of any level – can interfere with our lives. And, we should absolutely work to re-localize as much governmental power as possible and restore the balance to our federalist system.

However, there is a simple truth I fear gets lost along the way. Running the government well, and limiting the government’s power, go hand in hand. Efficient administration, proper procedural conduct, and adherence to the law are crucial for the functioning of a republic like ours. So, while we in this Network all continue to work to limit the role of government and the harms of its unintended consequences, I hope we’ll all take it upon ourselves to also ensure that whatever government is still doing, it is doing well.

Gabriel Green is coalition manager at the Center for Practical Federalism.

Authored by:Gabriel Green


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