Economics

How Much Government Is Enough?

An interview with John Samples

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John Samples, the director of the Cato Institute's Center for Representative Government, is an adjunct professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. This year he published The Struggle to Limit Government (Cato), a historical survey of the occasional successes and many failures of reformers who tried to slow or reverse the growth of the American state. Jeremy Lott, an editor at the Capital Research Center, spoke with Samples in April about America's ongoing love-hate relationship with government.

Q: How much government do Americans want?

A: During the run-up to the Reagan election in 1980, polling was done on a lot of issues about taxes and spending. The general rule was that people had in fact had enough on the tax front. Taxes had been going up for a decade or more, and they had been going up across the board. 

On the other hand, you found support in the polls for a lot of the spending programs. There was a sense that some of the programs should be cut, and some were cut. But generally speaking, Americans aren't put to a choice between spending and not spending.

So the answer is that the electorate has been on both sides of the issue—most of the time. 

Q: Tell me about the congressional class of 1994.

A: I see some parallels between now and then in the sense that the Tea Party groups are bringing new people into the political system, people who had not been involved in politics. There's a lot of evidence that the 1994 class was really politically inexperienced. Perhaps because of that, they were somewhat idealistic and a bit naive about how the system worked and how much could actually be done. On the other hand, that was their endearing quality. They still believed in the country and in the politics of redeeming the country toward its ideals.

They certainly proved to be difficult for Newt Gingrich to control. It was difficult for them to make compromises. They believed that they had come there to change things, to cut back on government and get the country off the path it was on. That made it harder to practice the arts of politics and leadership.

Q: You identify George W. Bush as "the most radical American leader since Lyndon Johnson."

A: Bush's domestic policy drew on Christianity in ways that were unexpected. 

Some people think compassionate conservatism is just a bumper sticker thing, but I think he actually meant it. Bush ran against the Republicans of 1994, and he ran against Reagan, really. Of course, he couldn't actually say that, but he did.

Q: We've just seen Obama's health care bill pass, against the opinions of the American people. How did that happen?

A: If you are willing to take any kind of losses, there are a lot of things a president and a determined leadership can do. The Republican majority from 1998 onward was very careful and worried about preserving its majority. The Democrats are not necessarily worried about preserving their majority. 

Q: One of the themes that you bring out is the idea of competing secular faiths in American politics. Tell me a little bit about that.

A: I've come to see the United States as a struggle between these two ideas, classical liberalism and progressivism. Classical liberalism was present in the founding and still remains present today. Progressivism is over a century old now.

Will the United States become predominantly one or the other? Right now it looks a little grim for individualism. On the other hand, in 1970 it looked like classical liberalism had been completely routed. That proved not to be true. I think the cultural foundations of individualism and limited government in America are a lot stronger than you might think.

NEXT: Gary Johnson Distances Himself From Libertarianism

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  1. Any relation of Candy?

  2. Threadjack (apologies): Former Sen. Ted Stevens involved in plane crash. 5 dead, condition of the senator is unknown.

    1. He’s just following Will Roger’s example. Dying in a plane crash in Alaska is more interesting than having a stroke and then shitting yourself for a few months, I guess.

  3. Any relation to Junior?

  4. I’ve come to see the United States as a struggle between these two ideas, classical liberalism and progressivism.

    Nice avoidance of the current terminology for “classical liberalism” – libertarian.

    First Rand Paul, now Cato – when did libertarian become a toxic term? Seems recent – perhaps due to libertarians seizing power in recent elections and implementing their agenda over the objections of the populace?

    1. Does it really matter what people call themselves? Its their positions on the issues that matter.

    2. Perhaps he’s trying to take ownership again of the term “liberal” for what it originally meant, people who supported a free market. It’s only recently that it’s been hijacked by statists.

      1. for what it originally meant, people who supported a free market

        That’s not what liberal originally meant.

        Oh, I get it, you were trying to be ironic. Awesome.

    3. Seems a little clever — it takes those ideas that we tend to favor and stakes that as the center of a mainstream party, rather than the realm of a fringe group of political iconoclasts. It demands that conservatives behave like libertarians (that is, it suggests that we are the ones who are, in many respects, truly preserving ancient American tradition and values).

      It offers a different narrative from the sort of conservatism represented by evangelical theocracy or national greatness crusades or the racist, xenophobic police state. Yes, accepting that means that libertarians have to actually pick a side rather than bitch about both. But it also means that we get to define the side that we’re picking and tell everyone else to join it, rather than flitting about betweent the lesser of the two current evils or giving up altogether.

      That said, it’s probably doomed to fail.

    4. Nice avoidance of the current terminology for “classical liberalism” – libertarian.

      Hayek refused to call himself a Libertarian. He said he preferred to think of himself as “an old whig”. This was in the Constition of Liberty, but I would expect it could be found in other places. Perhaps that changed someplace.

    5. IIRC – wasn’t the term “Libertarian” devised by a Marxist as a strawman?

  5. It’s becoming clearer to me that “liberal vs. conservative” doesn’t work and probably never did work. “Classical liberalism vs. progressivism” is the real story.

    1. I see it more of a “classic liberalism vs. Collectivism.”

    2. I’ve said for years that the two sides can be represented by the Libertarian and Green parties, which might be called the “Classical Liberal Party” and the “Progressive Party”, respectively. The problem with the term “Classical Liberalism” is that no one in the country outside of boneheaded political followers like us knows what it means. On the other hand, Libertarian is a well known term for those who prefer small government.

  6. “Classical liberalism Libertarian vs. progressivism” is the real story.

  7. Get to the heart of it.

    Capitalism vs. Socialism

    1. Individualism vs collectivism

    2. Liberal vs. Statist

  8. 1) Enough to provide for the rule of law and a common defense.

    2) Enough to maintain regulate things that transcend state borders (i.e. the FCC dealing with the radio spectrum, but not censoring what’s on it.)

    3) Enough to take advantage of economies of scale and assist state and local governments (i.e. the FBI.)

    4) No more than the above.

  9. How about right-wing fascists vs. moderate social liberals?

    And health care reform was not against the will of the people (this is a lame FOX News talking point, which works under the assumption that “the people” are solely composed of Teabaggers.” Much opposition to the bill that got passes was that it didn’t go far enough. And of course nobody likes the individual mandate–a Republican idea that passed because a public option couldn’t.

    1. Re: Tony,

      How about right-wing fascists vs. moderate social liberals?

      The only two frightening options, in Tony’s mind . . .

    2. Nice false choice.

    3. Re: Tony,

      And health care reform was not against the will of the people[…]

      The “people” being Nancy Pelosi. Got it.

      And of course nobody likes the individual mandate–a Republican idea that passed because a public option couldn’t.

      You mean the public option was more liked?

    4. fas?cism
      ? ?/?f???z?m/ Show Spelled[fash-iz-uhm] Show IPA
      ?noun
      1.
      ( sometimes initial capital letter ) a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.

      Let’s say if that sinks into Tony’s feeble mind anytime soon.

      1. Except for the free market fairy tales I’d say that describes the GOP pretty accurately. When government is run directly from the offices of their corporate puppeteers do you think they’re gonna work to encourage a free market?

        1. God, you’re blind. That describes BOTH parties, you hack. Both models promoted by both parties end up with this result. How can you be so blind? Sometimes I just wonder if you’re actually already sitting in political office.

          1. I know that neither party is innocent. But one party has some decent people left in it and doesn’t have the evil we’re talking about as their stated purpose in life.

            1. No party, and no humans can handle the power now residing in Washington, DC, without becoming corrupt. Humans just can’t handle this much power.

              You can choose to believe there are good people left in the Democrat party, but once they get to the top, they always do what the Republicans did.

              This is why, and why we need states rights, and individual rights, and why the Federal government was not meant to rule the states, under any so-called leadership:

              Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

              1. is al franken funny again?

            2. Tony, the only decent people in your party are the ones who hold no power whatsoever.

            3. Please name one single time a Republican government forcibly suppressed criticism, you mental midget. Have you ever read a newspaper between 2004 and 2008?

              Clearly you also don’t understand what it means to regiment commerce.

    5. “How about right-wing fascists vs. moderate social liberals?”

      Very enlightening Tony, to know that’s how you see this country. I see it as having people of every imaginable political stripe.

      But, you’re right, it’s only two types, moderates who agree with you, and fascists who don’t.

      1. Samples set up the dichotomy as being progressives vs. classical liberals. Half of the American political sphere is left out of this. In my estimation so-called classical liberals are a nonentity. Progressives make up a solid base of the Democratic party, but the party itself is composed of moderate social liberals, on the whole. The GOP may use libertarian rhetoric to dress up its corporatist, theocratic agenda, but it’s always just been rhetoric.

        1. “The GOP may use libertarian rhetoric to dress up its corporatist, theocratic agenda, but it’s always just been rhetoric.”

          Who can deny it?

        2. Actually, Democrats are corporatist as well. I’m pretty sure they supported synfuels, and not the wars. Very good business for the arms industry.

          1. “The GOP may use libertarian rhetoric to dress up its corporatist, theocratic agenda, but it’s always just been rhetoric.”

            OK, so now you’ve admitted that there is little to no libertarianism in the party. So, I hope that means you stop holding libertarians responsible for the actions of Bush and the Republicans.

            1. we live in a fascist state.

    6. “The Nazis are well remembered for murdering well over 11 million people in the implementation of their slogan, ‘The public good before the private good,’ the Chinese Communists for murdering 62 million people in the implementation of theirs, ‘Serve the people,’ and the Soviet Communists for murdering more than 60 million people in the implementation of Karl Marx’s slogan, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ Anyone who defends any of these, or any variation of them, on the grounds of their ‘good intentions’ is an immoral (NOT ‘amoral’) enabler of the ACTUAL (not just the proverbial) road to hell.” — Rick Gaber

      1. Well “Let’s slaughter entire races of people and slam an iron fist down on the population” didn’t focus group well.

        It’s not an either/or, to me. I believe there is such a thing as a public good, but working to enhance it is in the service of private good.

        1. “Public Good” is a utopian slogan that politicians use to gain more power. They may say they care about you, but they don’t.

        2. They may even fool themselves for a while. But once in the position of too much power, they go bad, as we see over and over again, war after war, injustice in the name of justice after injustice in the name of justice.

          Bit government doesn’t work, because those in power become corrupt.

          What’s the difference who’s elected when the power they gain is so great that it’s guaranteed to corrupt them?

      2. you forgot the other excuse: religion.

    7. So, you admit there are left-wing fascists.

      1. no there aren’t.

        tho we do have our share of wackos.

        1. Trying to put industry under state control IS fascism – so yes, there are quite a few left-wing fascists. Obama’s healthcare “reform” is nothing if not fascist.

          1. Sooo every country in the world is fascist with respect to the armed defense industry?

            1. The armed defense industry is not under state control, genius. Our defense department contracts with private corporations to purchase their equipment. Under fascism, the state would control everything Lockheed, for example, does. Try thinking before you post next time.

    8. “Moderate”

      Jesus, that was good for a laugh. Oh, me sides are hurtin’ from all the laughing. That’s a real knee-slapper, alrighty!

  10. “The general rule was that people had in fact had enough on the tax front. Taxes had been going up for a decade or more, and they had been going up across the board.

    On the other hand, you found support in the polls for a lot of the spending programs. There was a sense that some of the programs should be cut, and some were cut. But generally speaking, Americans aren’t put to a choice between spending and not spending.”

    Getting something for nothing is hard to defeat. The question is: does 50.1% of the poplulation understand that there is no something for nothing.

    1. Yes, those of us who voted for Obama know that such programs as the health care bill and the stimulus are necessary and we are willing to pay for them.

      It’s just the looney tune conservatives and libertarians who want to have government services without paying for them.

      It is an established, undisputable fact that cutting spending would be impossible and not even worth mentioning. There are absolutely no programs that can be cut, anywhere. And, since the NY Times echoes this fact, it has to be true.

    2. The question is: does 50.1% of the poplulation understand that there is no something for nothing.

      The problem is the sizable minority who do understand this, but rationalize that they aren’t *really* getting something for nothing.

    3. wrong

      as an example

      rock n roll = chicks are free

  11. “Right now it looks a little grim for individualism. On the other hand, in 1970 it looked like classical liberalism had been completely routed. That proved not to be true. I think the cultural foundations of individualism and limited government in America are a lot stronger than you might think.”

    Hmm, perhaps. The problem is it’s hard to see where government regulation was rolled back at all after the 1970s. Perhaps its advance was slowed but little was undone. Which is why it’s hard to be optimistic on the libertarian/classic liberal front: freedom can always be undone, regulation is rarely undone. And even when regulation/control is stopped, it just comes back again later.

    1. never been better for me as an individual. man, i know freeeeeeeee.

      so keep hoping

  12. it’s hard to see where government regulation was rolled back at all after the 1970s. Perhaps its advance was slowed but little was undone. Which is why it’s hard to be optimistic on the libertarian/classic liberal front: freedom can always be undone, regulation is rarely undone. And even when regulation/control is stopped, it just comes back again later.

    That’s what you see if that’s what you’re prone to seeing, at any point in time.

    You can always say control is going to come back, but where’s the evidence? There’s no sign that conscription, which was normal for a generation in the USA, is coming back, even after efforts have been made to introduce it; just a generation, and the draft is dead & buried and practically unrevivable.

    If you want to look from 1980 on, as seems to be where it gets hard for you to see according to what’s written above, look at the countries that privatized their telecom. None of them have re-statized it. And do you see any chance of the Berlin Wall’s re-erection, either within Germany again or anywhere nearby?

    The Fairness Doctrine has been repudiated, and all the noise that’s been made ever since about bringing it back, to no avail, shows it practically can’t happen.

    For a while the expansion of legal gambling in the USA, much of which was after the 1970s, may have hit a plateau, but there’s no sign of its being rolled back despite agitation to do so.

    Maybe now that I’ve gotten you started, your vision will improve, and you can think of other areas of deregulation that show strong resistance to reregulation.

    1. The draft is dead? They still force you to register. That’s only one step away from invoking. So, you’re correct that it’s been beaten back, but not that it’s dead.

      I do appreciate your other examples. However, the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine has been replaced by a rat’s nest of rules on political speech, from campaign reporting rules and donation limits, to rigged presidential debates.

      Also, in the same timeframe of these de-regulatory events, we’ve been given the Patriot Act, the new medical insurance regs, financial snooping regulations (supposedly to fight terror), and a 100 other new levels of regulation.

      The overall trend is to more and more political control, leading to more and more corruption.

      1. I suggest this as a litmus test for any federal candidate: will they sponsor and/or support legislation to repeal draft registration. Any candidate who won’t is not to be trusted.

    2. control over what, mon ami?

    3. You make some good points here. In my defense, let me note that I was trying to keep things succint & so over-generalized. I also wasn’t sure whether to use “control” or “regulation.”

      However, even though I concede your points, I would still argue that the drift (rush at times?) is toward more regulation. The increase in the size of the federal code is pretty well established. Although a lot of that is, no doubt, internal rules for employees, some of it must be for public regulation. The increase in the size of the federal government workforce also points in that direction.

      I would also note the increasing regulations put forward by state, county, city governments on any manner of things. Some of these may apply only to businesses & so are “invisible” to the average person but still affect our lives.

      On speech: again, you make good points. But the slow spread of speech codes on campuses which, in turn, produce a generation of people who believe that restricting speech actually furthers freedom.

      Again, your points are correct but I think the movement is, currently, toward more regulation.

  13. The draft is dead? They still force you to register. That’s only one step away from invoking. So, you’re correct that it’s been beaten back, but not that it’s dead.

    It’s evidence of just how dead it is. SSS registr’n has been in force for 30 yrs., and yet with callups just a step away, that step hasn’t been taken, even though it looked close 30 yrs. ago. That means there’s really strong resistance to it.

    We’ve been under the terror for only 9 yrs. It remains to be seen whether it becomes the new normal that lasts a full generation or more, or whether it will be gotten over soon.

    Meanwhile some bad fads have come & gone. When was the last time you heard about Satanic ritual abuse at day care centers? Seems like we’re well past the peak of violence associated with trade summits, and we’ve been getting lower and fewer trade barriers.

    In 1980 few states had “shall issue” for permits for concealed carry of weapons, now many do, and gun control is under effective Constitutional attack, which it wasn’t then.

    1. draft is a very stupid idea for very stupid people.

  14. Isn’t that like asking how much robbery and murder is “enough”?

  15. size isn’t important said the lady to the tramp.

  16. Fascism is one well polished boot print away from socialism on the political scale. They are not on opposite ends of the spectrum.

    I no longer believe electing the ‘right’ people to federal positions can stop, much less deflate the power of the federal government.

    That work must be done by the states. Perhaps the most effective thing a new congress could do would be to repeal the 17th Amendment. It would forever stop further federal power grabs.

    Imagine a Senate without any Harry Reids… It’s enough to make you smile.

  17. The 1994 GOP “conservatives” were a bunch of pussies, and the “Contract with America” was a piece of useless, political masturbation that didn’t accomplish anything that conservatives would like to see.

  18. The funny thing is that you libertarians are as wrapped up in the federal cult as those you despise. If the LP stopped making futile Presidential runs and focused entirely on Governors and state congressmen, you might actually get somewhere.

    To advance your agenda you’d need the administrations of many states simply ignoring or actively refusing co-operation with the federal government. The false belief that you share with the socialists you hate, that all power lies with D.C., kills you all everytime.

    But don’t let me change your mind…

  19. Extremely well said “Whiskey Jim”,and very true. Fascism is but one short step beyond socialism, a key distinction which many people don’t realize.

  20. Remember that for any entity, the very first tax for the very most noble reason is always step one toward socialism. Freedom is maintaining balance on the tip of a needle.

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  43. The funny thing is that you libertarians are as wrapped up in the federal cult as those you despise. If the LP stopped making futile Presidential runs and focused entirely on Governors and state congressmen, you might actually get somewhere.

    To advance your agenda you’d need the administrations of many states simply ignoring or actively refusing co-operation with the federal government. The false belief that you share with the socialists you hate, that all power lies with D.C., kills you all everytime.
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    But don’t let me change your mind…
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  44. historical survey of the occasional successes and many failures of reformers who tried to

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