How much money should the government spend, asks columnist Robert Samuelson? That is the question raised by the huge Obama deficits and the sovereign debt crisis in Europe.
It's also the question raised in Britain by Janet Daley when she writes: "Labour Must Admit It -- Big Government is Dead."
Unfortunately the problem is bigger than than just arguing about how big the government should be. The problem starts with the whole question of what government is for.
Michael Barone raises the question rather neatly in an article dissecting Attorney General Eric Holder's reluctance to admit that radical Islamism is a problem. It's the belief that ordinary Americans are a Howling Mob.
The reason that President Bush rushed out on 9/11 and urged Americans to be nice to their Muslim neighbors issues from the same source as Holder's reluctance to name. Both of them fear the Howling Mob. They fear that Americans are just one knee-jerk away from descending on their Muslim neighbors and killing them--or their African American neighbors, or their gay/lesbian neighbors.
It's that patronizing elitism that drives the whole notion of big government. Ordinary people can't be trusted to be civilized; government must instruct them. Ordinary people can't be trusted to educate their children; government must teach them. Ordinary people can't be trusted to get health insurance; government must mandate it.
The attitude becomes self-validating, for when people don't have to suck it in and run their lives responsibly, many don't. If many people act irresponsibly, then elites assume that ordinary people are irresponsible. And why not? The bigger the government the more power to the governing elite.
The proper answer to the question about the size of government is this: Government should not be a jot bigger than it has to be to keep the peace and run the legal system. That's because anything is better than teenagers and twenty-somethings running around in the street with guns.
As for everything else, Americans would be a lot better off, materially and morally, if they did for themselves rather than paying big government to do it badly. They would be more involved in their children's education, more involved in granny's health care, and more involved in pitching in to contribute to civic improvements.
But what about the poor? Well, with all the money not going into taxes, then Americans would have a lot of money, and a lot of moral inducement to get out there and help. They could start by helping out a neighbor, and quietly help a parent with school fees, and go on from there.
With government a lot smaller, it would be able to expand rapidly in time of war or emergency and help get the nation out of a jam. Without breaking the bank.
As for the Howling Mob, here's a little known fact. Ordinary people very seldom turn into a mob. It usually takes a charismatic leader--i.e., a politician--to arouse their rage and get them to surrender their individuality and their timidity to the madness of a crowd.