How Small Should Government Be?

by Harry Browne

August 19, 2005

Anthony Wile recently posted an article at in which he urged that those who believe in small, limited government and those who believe in no government at all should quit arguing over their differences and unite to fight big government.

It is a excellent article and well worth reading, but as I read it, it occurred to me that all such discussions seem to ignore one angle. We have an obvious motive to be working together without even trying to work together.

Suppose there were a magic button sitting in front of you. And suppose that button would instantly reduce the federal government to only, say, $200 billion.

Would you refuse to push the button ó even if you want the federal government to be 0 dollars? Would you refuse to push the button ó even if you think the federal government should be $500 billion?

Once the federal government is only $200 billion, we can each go our separate way ó trying to make the federal government exactly what each wants it to be. For some the federal government would be $200 billion too large, for others perhaps $300 too small. But for each a $2 trillion reduction in the size of government would be welcome. I doubt that thereís even one among us who would refuse to see the federal government at $200 billion as a first step.

So why should we waste our time arguing now over where government should go once itís down to $200 billion.

Stating our Case

Iím always arguing that government is way too big, that government programs donít work, that free-market programs are much more effective, more fair, less expensive.

From time to time, someone will ask me, "So how would you handle roads in your free society?"

Instead of trying to convince someone that roads should be the province of the free market, and let the discussion be steered into esoterica ó leaving listeners with the idea that this is all just an attractive pipe dream ó I usually say:

I have no doubt that roads ó like anything else ó would be far safer, far less expensive and far more practical if they were built and operated by private companies. But letís stay within the realm of todayís possibilities. Letís talk about reducing dramatically todayís $2Ĺ-trillion federal budget, about ending a scandalous welfare program, about stopping the wholesale destruction of our health-care and education systems by the federal government. In short letís get government out of our lives wherever we can.

If the questioner still wants to focus on roads, he will do so at the risk of losing the support of listeners who do want to talk about reducing government in their lives ó in short, about two thirds or more of his audience.

Poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans think government is much too big. This is a fertile field ó one thatís ready to be shown that much smaller government can give them much more of what they want. We should be taking advantage of this bias, and pushing to mobilize this audience to flood their congressmen, legislators, governors, and the president with requests to enact legislation that will reduce and eliminate huge, bloated, government programs.

The Future

Once weíve reduced government to $200 billion, Iíll personally head up a fund-raising drive to raise the money to rent the Super Bowl, so we can gather to argue how much smaller government should be.

Until then, I refuse to join the arguments over the ideal size of government ó despite any opinions I may harbor.

How small should government be?

Government is force, and we should be eager to remove force wherever possible from human affairs.

So how small should government be?

As small as humanly possible.