The Size of Government Question


How big should government be? That was the gist of the very first question at last night's Democratic presidential debate. The question, posed to Bernie Sanders, noted that spending by the federal government is already equal to about 21 percent of the economy. How much bigger would it be in a Sanders administration?

Sanders, you may not be surprised to discover, did not directly answer the question. Instead, he simply insisted, as he has so many times before, that government has a responsibility to do much more than it is doing right now, on health care, education, infrastructure, jobs, and more. After a follow-up from the moderator, he briefly acknowledged that there should be some sort of limit on the size of government, but did not even attempt to suggest what that limit should be. Instead, he reiterated his belief that the government has a responsibility to do much more than it is doing now.

Sanders' response was a dodge, and a telling one for a candidate whose plans for the federal government are so ambitious. But he was onto something anyway. Because the way he answered the question was essentially to reframe it, not as a question about the size of government, but about its role.

This is the hidden debate in American politics today, the big question that is rarely discussed directly but arguably lies at the foundation of nearly every major policy and political debate. What is the purpose of government? What is it essential nature and character, its mission statement? What are its essential duties and functions?

The question Sanders actually answered was not, "How big should the government be?" but "What should the government do?" This is a question worth dwelling on, and one for which neither party has a particularly good answer.  

For Sanders, the answer is just about everything, or pretty close. He acknowledges, when pushed, that government should have limits, but he cannot articulate where those limits might because he cannot really imagine any arena where government might not have some role. That's not to say that Sanders, who has worried darkly about the threats posed by too many styles of deodorant and sneakers even as children starve, has a plan for government to everything right now, but it is difficult for him to imagine any area where government might not ever need to intervene at some point.

Later in the debate, when asked about what parts of government he might cut, he initially could not name anything except a vague reference to "waste." In what department? In what program? Sanders didn't say, and it didn't appear to be a question he'd given much thought to over the year. A moment later, he interjected to say he favors unspecified cuts at the Department of Defense, where he is sure there is excess spending and duplicative effort of some kind, but even here he had nothing specific. His view of government's role is both practically unbounded and almost undefined: Its job, potentially, is to do anything and everything he thinks should be done.

For Sanders' opponent in the Democratic presidential race, Hillary Clinton, the answer is somewhat different. Her follow-up to Sanders on the size of government question was instructive: Sanders' plans would grow the size of government by about 40 percent, she said, but the main problem with his plans is that they aren't practical. "Every progressive economist who has analyzed [Sanders' health care plan] says that the numbers don't add up, and that's a promise that cannot be kept," she said. The problem with his plan, for her, isn't that the government would be too big or doing too much or going beyond its mandate, but that it wouldn't work.

Clinton's view, in other words, is that the government should do everything it's doing now, whatever that is, plus a little bit more. She seems to view herself as a caretaker and manager, nurturing government as it exists today, and growing it somewhat here and there. Her response on the what would you cut question was that she'd streamline some training and education programs and "take a hard look at every part of the federal government and really do the kind of analysis" needed to see what might not be necessary anymore, which is another way of saying she'd make no significant cuts. This is a view of government bounded only by practical and political considerations. There are things government cannot do, at least right now, but nothing, really, that it simply should not do. There's no mission statement either, no real idea about government's specific place and purpose—no sense of what exactly it is for.

This sort of fuzziness about government's purpose is perhaps an occupational hazard for politicians of the left, where active government is a default assumption, but in different forms it is evident on the right as well. The Republican presidential field is united in the belief that taxes should be lower, but have far less to say about the sorts of program cuts and reforms that would be necessary to account for the reductions in tax revenues that would certainly result even under optimistic dynamic scoring scenarios. Similarly, too many GOP policy reforms are merely focused on making existing programs leaner or more efficient rather than on fitting them into a larger government schema. There is nothing wrong, of course, with saying that "government should take in less revenue and be more efficient," but it is not a vision of what government should be, and most Republicans do not really seem to have one, or at least not one they can explain.

This inability to clearly articulate a rationale for government's existence, to explain what sort of business it is in, is responsible for much of the confusion and frustration on both the left and right, and for much of the sprawl, complexity, and inefficiency in government today. We have Republicans whose idea of government is lower taxes and better management, and Democrats whose idea of government is higher taxes and more programs—perhaps a few more, perhaps a lot more—and maybe better management too. And this is why it is so hard for both sides to answer questions about the proper size of government: Neither side really has a clear sense of what it should do and what it should be.

There's a lesson here for reformers of all stripes, but especially for those who, like me, would prefer to see a smaller, more restrained government: It's not enough to talk about what to cut and what to shrink; it's important to talk about what government should be doing, and how to ensure that it does it well. Give government a purpose and a mission—a clear, positive, and limited mission—and get enough people on board, and the size will right itself.