Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The Question of Government Size and Scope

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 04, 2011

In Budgetary Reform: Opportunity Knocks, I made the point that budgetary problems should be perceived as an opportunity scale back the size of government. My premise was that, at least in the modern first world, government tends to be very big, deeply committed to social engineering, militantly secular and opposed to the purposes of religion, ignorant of both the value and the need of subsidiarity, possessed of a tendency toward totalitarianism, and—in the long run—economically unworkable.

To me, this premise is unassailable and, based on correspondence received, it would seem that most active users of agree. However, I did receive some comments from those who disagree with all or most of this characterization of government in the modern world, including one prolific correspondent who believes that my premise is irrationally “right wing”, and that what is needed is more government, not less.

One important point made by this correspondent was that many contemporary problems are not amenable to local control. One thinks of the problems raised by multinational corporations and international commerce, environmental depredation, human and drug trafficking, military conflicts in various regions, and so on. There can be little doubt that some problems are better dealt with on the national or even international level. This reflects the highly complex and highly organized nature of contemporary first world societies, along with the massive infrastructures required even for ordinary life in modern societies. Therefore, to be sure, each problem facing the public requires careful analysis to determine: (a) Whether government should be involved in its solution; and, (b) If so, which levels of government can best be involved.

Having said this, I think four other things need to be said, and these things lie at the heart of an authentic Catholic position regarding government, a position born of a thorough immersion in Catholic social teaching. These four factors are commonly ignored in contemporary first world countries.

The Premise of Government Involvement

The first two factors arise from the simple fact that points (a) and (b) above are rarely considered. How often do proponents of big government (called liberals in the United States) really ask themselves whether government should be involved in the solution to a problem? Truly asking this question presupposes that the answer could be “No”. But a negative answer to this question is almost unthinkable in mainstream contemporary culture. We have gotten in the habit, I think, of calling for government involvement as soon as we even remotely suspect the existence of some problem or difficulty. This tendency has grown as we have lost our sense of personal responsibility in favor of a pervasive personal, social and especially moral laziness.

Considering the tremendous costs of government intervention and its repeatedly proven likelihood of failure, a person would be more likely to answer “No” if he were not a victim of one or more modern ideologies of social control. I’ll return to this question of social control later. For now, however, it is enough to remember that government intervention carries enormous economic and social costs which not infrequently offset whatever good a government program may achieve. The economic costs arise from the need to remove potential employees from wealth-producing activities and put them to work in agencies supported by taxes. This in itself is a double economic hit. In addition, governmental inefficiency and waste are legendary, have always been so, and hardly need to be documented here.

There are also costs in effectiveness, as so many government programs have proven incapable of achieving their purpose. In the United States we could point to the ill-advised welfare system of the 1970’s and all other programs which undermine the family, the health of which is the chief indicator of economic well-being; the Medicaid system which is widely avoided and frequently bankrupt; the demographic misconceptions and deplorable mismanagement behind the social security system; the systemic reliance on debt to facilitate spending beyond the nation’s means; and many other comprehensive programs.

Finally, there are costs in terms of human dignity and liberty, as decisions are made for people who have little involvement in the process, applying one-size-fits-all solutions to particular problems which need local knowledge and a personal touch to resolve, if they can be resolved at all. Throughout history, there have been many ways to address various human needs that did not involve government. Those which involve local organizations and especially the Church tend to maximize self-determination, collaborative effort, tailored solutions, ongoing concern and even sustained love. That we have forgotten most or all of these alternative forms of social organization is a further proof of the blinders we wear.

Harnessing Local Resources

Similarly, how often do our leaders and their big government supporters really ask themselves whether some problem can be handled more effectively on the local level? Even observing the political and lobbying statements of the USCCB suggests a remarkable tendency to turn first and most often to the top level of government for comprehensive solutions to every human concern. Is someone poor? The Federal government must provide support. Is someone sick? The Federal government must establish a baseline for medical care. Has some sort of prejudice been at work? Bring in the Feds. Are gas prices too high? Get help from Washington. And so on.

This is reflexive in modern society, and it is a direct violation of the principle of subsidiarity. That principle, as you will recall, is based on the dignity of the human person, which demands that each person be as much involved in the solution to his own problems as possible. Therefore, solutions to problems are to be address locally first, using mechanisms and resources which can be marshaled in the natural communities which surround those in need. These may, of course, include non-governmental initiatives and resources. In any case, higher levels are to be brought into play to support, rather than supplant, these local efforts. The exercise of power in the implementation of human solutions is always to be kept at the lowest possible level.

As I indicated at the outset, this does not mean that problems should not be addressed at higher levels as needed, though it may call into question the wisdom of a way of life which requires a great many things to be orchestrated at a very high level, as we will see in the next section. But here my point is that there is a reflexive tendency nowadays to ignore local possibilities and go straight to those who can impose their will unilaterally on entire nations. Funds to support these efforts travel very far from home, where they are entangled in various kinds of political corruption even as they support inefficient bureaucracies. Relatively few dollars ever return.

Human Reorganization

The third point to be made is that a culture characterized by massive, highly-technical infrastructures—all those things which permit and foster nationalization and globalization—is by no means the only acceptable form of human culture, and may not even be its most desirable form. Surely there are at least many benefits to smaller forms of organization, more local economies, and less concentration of resources in major world hubs. Among many other authors, E. F. Schumacher has made this point in his attractive little book, Small is Beautiful.

The rise of international competition (not to mention terrorism) has arguably brought at least as many negative consequences as positive ones. Infrastructure problems are becoming increasingly evident. A recent trip to Dallas for a wedding reminded me that air travel is becoming more difficult and less comfortable, with many people avoiding it whenever possible. Most governments are having difficulty maintaining the infrastructures that were developed during the peak years of growing prosperity including, for example, many U.S. road, bridge, water and sewage systems. It is not foolish at least to reflect on whether things are really best organized on such large scales. Population plays some role in this, of course, but it is hardly the only factor.

In other words, it is not necessarily a compelling argument for big government that our current modes of human organization require it. In any case, it may soon become necessary to reconsider the whole proposition. If there is a prolonged inability to sustain the massive infrastructures of modern life, which in turn create a huge argument for constant government involvement in daily life, then our economic, political and social mechanisms and relationships will shift—much as the rise of air conditioning in the second half of the twentieth century caused innumerable U.S. companies to move from the expensive Northeast to the inexpensive South.

Life will reorganize around what works, what can be sustained. Even if this does not happen quickly from sheer necessity, we do well to consider whether it should happen because of its inherent desirability. Again, we should not be afraid to think outside the box. Human modes of organization are not inevitable. They are the result of decisions made in response to various pressures, pressures which are frequently conflicting in nature, and pressures which usually admit of more than one reasonable response.

Banishing Utopia

Finally, my fourth point is that the prevailing dogma of secularism skews all considerations of governmental size and scope. Having inherited, mostly from Christianity, the idea that one day every tear should be wiped away, secularists tend to become utopian. Lacking faith in God, refusing to acknowledge Original Sin, and victimized by an unwarranted faith in Progress, secularists tend to insist that every problem be solved now, and that less enlightened persons (read “non-secularists”) must be forced to go along.

While this effort is usually couched in quasi-moral terms (a natural human tendency), the reality was well expressed recently by an unsuspecting student: “For me, it is not really about morality. If you have power in government, you need to decide which direction you want society to go in, and half-measures don’t work. You need to force everyone to go in the direction you choose.” Indeed.

When this is not the selfish mantra of a tyrant, as it usually is not in our modern states, it is a sure sign of utopianism. Dominant people have a vision of the perfect society and they believe they can significantly improve or even perfect the social order if they simply force everyone to go along. Again, this is in part a strange extraction from what used to be Christian beliefs which sharply distinguished this world from the next. The resulting secularist distortion goes far to explain the strong tendency toward totalitarianism which has been characteristic of modern States, beginning with the French Revolution, continuing through Marxism and the resulting Communist states, arising again in Nazi Germany and to some degree in Fascist Italy and Spain, and now gradually overtaking the rest of the first world, including the United States, despite its past history of resistance.

Typically, utopians turn to government to realize their dreams, and typically they feel that by advocating government intervention they have fulfilled their moral duty to the “less fortunate”—which is in itself a vestige of Christianity that they have not yet quite learned to do without. Thus big government in the modern period is typically born of utopianism. Perhaps the best way to characterize, and hopefully skewer, this widespread attitude is to quote from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s speech to the German Bundestag (national parliament) in 1981:

It is of course always difficult to adopt a sober approach that does what is possible and does not cry enthusiastically after the impossible…. [T]he voice of reason is not as loud as the voice of unreason. The cry for the large-scale has the whiff of morality; in contrast limiting oneself to what is possible seems to be renouncing the passions of morality and adopting the pragmatism of the faint-hearted. But, in truth, political morality consists precisely in resisting the seductive temptation of the big words by which humanity and its opportunities are gambled away.


I am not one to present quotes from Cardinal Ratzinger as if they are the magisterial pronouncements of Pope Benedict XVI. But it seems to me that in his 1981 address, the future Pope captured in his inimitable way the very essence of the problem we face concerning the size and scope of government. The cry for the large-scale appeals to the moral conscience of those who are, at heart, almost purely secular, those who do not really (in most cases) share a fully Christian vision of man—those who, in fact, possess very little if any grounds whatsoever for authentic moral judgment. If they claim to be Christian, they also tend to read Catholic social teaching very selectively, confusing solidarity with government fiat and ignoring subsidiarity completely—two errors Pope Benedict tried to correct in his recent social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (see also my brief commentary, Subsidiarity and Solidarity are Inseparable).

But in truth their political morality is driven, as Ratzinger said, by high-sounding slogans, the very slogans under which “humanity and its opportunities are gambled away.” In the name of Catholic social teaching, the Church, and Jesus Christ, it is time to insist on the transformation and even the devolution of the modern State.

Previous in series: Budgetary Reform: Opportunity Knocks
Next in Series: What Is the Purpose of Government?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: New Sister - Aug. 18, 2011 3:19 PM ET USA

    "slogans under which 'humanity and its opportunities are gambled away.'" -like... "Yes we can!"?

  • Posted by: - Aug. 07, 2011 8:58 PM ET USA

    The very nature of government is to coerce and control. That's what it does. It cannot love.

  • Posted by: Millán Yuso - Aug. 07, 2011 11:47 AM ET USA

    A thrillingly clear analysis of the time it is. How to get it through to our offspring who tend to tread the urban backwaters in little clumps, subsisting on a weak gruel of green faith, ennervating music that numbs the mind the with inane repetition or obscene lyric or noise and the occasional friendship however transient. I'll try the email.

  • Posted by: djpeterson - Aug. 06, 2011 1:32 PM ET USA

    I agree that in general GOV. is too large. However, Gov. still has a crucial role to play, but a limited one. Some examples appear in the excellent book on the real history of the American System and the American economy, The Great Betrayal, by Patrick Buchanan. Policies like the U.S. space program, building the railroad system, and providing patents to inventors. Ironically, you left out the 2 decades of unnecessary and futile Mideast wars, the ugliest example of corrupt BIG GOVERNMENT abuse.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Aug. 06, 2011 8:53 AM ET USA

    The cost of Government is too high. A big part of that problem is that our current monetary policy has set private banks like the Federal Reserve up as the means to loan money to the Government. The Fed does not have the assets to loan trillions of dollars. The people of the USA do have the assets. Our government should go back to the Greenback issuance that President Lincoln began in response to BIG BANK greed. A concept called social credit needs to be implemented.

  • Posted by: Ramblescram7093 - Aug. 05, 2011 10:49 AM ET USA

    I think you'd like a book called Republic of Grace by Charles Matthews. It's an Augustinian examination of our present times. Gritty stuff to be sure, but it gives your mind some lofty philosophy to digest, and though an intellectual workout sometimes, it is always a pleasure to use that "muscle." Keep up the strong work Dr. Mirrus, your clear thinking helps me help others understand. God bless.