More Government Does Not Mean Less Freedom

Despite the claims of conservatives, there is no necessary trade-off between government size and the freedom of its citizens.

"FREEDOM!" has always been a rallying cry of anti-government activists.  Many conservatives embrace and extol the libertarian principle that “Individual freedom and government power are polar opposites. More government means less freedom.”1  For them, the trade-off between government size and individual liberty is inevitable, and this is the main reason they work to minimize government.

As Ronald Reagan once put it: “Runaway government threatens … the very preservation of freedom itself.”2 Charlton Heston, speaking to a college audience in the 1990s, argued that the government had become more than just a threat, that it had already reached oppressive proportions in the United States:

There is now no aspect of American life, public or private, that the federal government does not invade, instruct and finally coerce to its will. Farm and factory, home and school, university and research center, club and playground – all are overlaid with a spidery network of laws, guidelines, restrictions and Draconian penalties that stifle the spirit, the energy, the creative capacity of what was once the freest nation on earth. In this hemisphere, now that Ortega and Noriega have fallen, the collectivists' sentiments discredited around the world fly best, I fear, in Cuba and Washington, D.C.3

Heston’s views may seem extreme, but it is important to realize that many Americans are concerned about government impinging on their freedoms. Almost a third of us believe that the federal government “poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.”    And many people resent it fiercely whenever the government prevents them from doing what they want to do – whether it is riding a motorcycle without a helmet, filling in a wetland on their property, or carrying a gun for their own protection.

Bashing the government in the name of freedom can be a very effective political tactic.  After all,  freedom is quintessentially American. It is our most basic political value and a fundamental part of our national political identity. We are “the land of the free” as we sing in our national anthem. And so, to the extent that government can be portrayed as interfering with our individual rights and freedoms, it will be seen as bad – as anti-American.

The political right's ability to convince many Americans that there is an inevitable trade-off between government and freedom has been one of its greatest ideological victories.   In one stroke, it renders illegitimate virtually all liberal policy initiatives.  Any effort to expand social programs or increase regulation becomes seen as an attack on freedom.  If you value freedom, it is argued, you should strongly oppose any increase in public sector activity.  If you love freedom, you should hate government.

Or so it seems. But things are not always as they seem.  In reality, this view of the relationship between freedom and government is incomplete, distorted, and often wrong. It relies almost entirely on a misleading stereotype:  government as “Big Brother.” But if we can step back and look at the performance of our democratic government in a more objective and less dogmatic way, we begin to see that many of the basic conservative and libertarian assumptions about government and freedom are mistaken.

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