Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

How Big Is Too Big?

Stephen Monsma


October 26, 2012

By Stephen Monsma

A crucial issue in this year’s presidential election is the size and scope of government. Governor Mitt Romney’s website argues: “The mission to restore America to health begins with reducing the size of the federal government . . .  Romney will cut federal spending and regulation, . . . reducing the size and reach of the federal government . . .”  I am deeply troubled by this. 

This position is closer to libertarianism than it is to traditional conservatism. Traditional conservatives recognize the limitations and frailties of human nature and wisdom. Thus, they see a proper role for government in restraining the darker forces in human nature. They fear both an overly weak and an overly intrusive government. And they believe societal and political change should come slowly and incrementally. Libertarianism, on the other hand, has a never-say-die faith in human nature and in impersonal forces such as the free market to lead to a strong, equitable society if only left alone.

This means a key issue—in my thinking the key issue—in this election is not liberalism versus conservatism, but liberalism versus libertarianism. 

And I am convinced that libertarianism is far removed from a Christian understanding of government and public policy. A Christian perspective on public policy includes both human beings’ fallen, sinful nature and government as a God-established institution to promote justice and the common good. There is an active, appropriate role for government in society. The picture of prosperity and societal advancement emerging out of social and economic competition with minimal government intervention is closer to social Darwinism than a Christian view of society and government.

This is not to say that Romney and Ryan are thorough-going libertarians or social Darwinists. Far from it. But the drum-beat of criticism of government-run programs is disturbing, especially when combined with a call to reduce today’s huge deficits alongside pledges not to raise taxes or cut defense spending. This can only be accomplished by huge cuts in the remaining domestic programs. Thus Republican calls to reduce the size and scope of government—while falling short of a full-blown libertarianism—must be seen as moving us strongly in that direction. And that concerns me deeply.

Let me give some insight into my concern by citing three government programs that I believe are promoting public justice, but would likely suffer under a move towards libertarianism.

One is the Pell Grant program providing financial assistance to college students from low and moderate income families. The budget that Ryan authored as Chairman of the Budget Committee would cut funding for Pell Grants by $170 billion over 10 years. The Pell Grant program is not a give-away program encouraging dependency on government.  Instead, it creates opportunities for those working to obtain the education needed to develop their God-given abilities and to fulfill their God-given calling. With even community college costs rising, it helps level the playing-field of opportunity, thereby promoting justice. And it advances the common good by helping assure an educated citizenry, able to contribute meaningfully in an increasingly competitive world.

Government programs that lead to cleaner air and water and more efficient use of natural resources also promote justice and the common good. Here, individual actions such as recycling waste materials, driving more fuel-efficient cars and properly disposing of household toxic wastes are good and God-honoring.  But even if half or more of the population do so but others do not, God’s good creation will still be despoiled and the resources he has put in his earth will still be wasted. Progress in creation care depends on us acting together, as a society, which requires government programs.

My third example of government action that promotes justice and the common good is the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), begun by President George W. Bush, which has sent billions of dollars to Africa and other countries being ravaged by HIV/AIDS. PEPFAR has literally saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Part of the reason for its success is that it is working through many nongovernmental, local, often faith-based organizations. Yet the Romney website—true to its less-government-the-better mindset—does not mention the PEPFAR program (even though the website has a special tab on Africa) and promises to cut foreign aid.

Do not take what I have written here to suggest that I believe bigger, more active government is always better or that government programs always promote justice and the common good. That is hardly the case. And even the best of government programs could be made to work more efficiently and effectively. Also, I believe that in weighing for whom to vote this fall, the Romney-Ryan ticket’s libertarian leanings must be weighed against the Obama-Biden’s ticket’s commitment to protecting abortion as a right and its weak approach to protecting the religious freedom rights of religiously-based organizations.

There is a robust role for government in society to promote justice and the common good in a world where sin and brokenness are still very much with us. We need a thoughtful discussion of where government is working well and where it is not, where government action is needed and where it is not. And that is what I am not hearing this year.

—Stephen V. Monsma is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College and Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Pepperdine University.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”