Why Libertarians Should Favor Small Government, Not Zero Government

What do you mean Libertarians don’t favor the absolute abolition of the federal government? Are you even a real Libertarian, bro?

It’s complicated.

I will preface this piece by noting that Libertarians should absolutely advocate for the reduction of the federal government at any turn where it can be done without encroaching on the parts of government that protect liberty or ensure transparency. That last part is significant. When we say the words “small government” we are referring to a system where the government is a tool to reduce coercion, not cause it. David Nolan, who originally founded the Libertarian Party, reinforced this idea by noting: “As long as there are people who will resort to coercion, you cannot have a ‘society without coercion.’  At best you can have a society which minimizes coercion.”

The classical liberal thinkers that laid the foundation of this country understood that there has to exist a government of some form to protect individual rights. Even they, who managed to overthrow a monarch’s grip on our thirteen sovereign states, understood that they needed some form of unity.

My favorite revolutionary quote that demonstrates this comes from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, where Paine wrote: “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness… society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.” The revolutionaries of that age did not advocate for a complete dissolution of government even when they were faced with true oppression from a monarch interested in punishing criticism against his image, revoking government charters from our own government bodies, and dictating rules without the opinion of the colonists.

In Paine’s opinion, government is created with “security being the true design and end of government.” The new republic was made with a strict focus solely on protecting its citizens and their rights from true evils, whether they be domestic or foreign. So, there are indeed limits to our argument for a small government, because abolition or dissolution of the union would result in greater opportunity for coercion and less protection of individual rights. Instead, we ought to fight for the federal government to realign itself with the principles of the classical liberal thinkers of the revolution. How radical is it to say that we only want a government that is focused on providing for our liberty and protecting our security? That is all that we want.

Fire the bureaucrat who collects a pension funded by our hard-earned dollars for sitting at a desk reading needless paperwork. Reduce the power of the congress who seeks to impose their lifestyle choices on our own. Trash the Fed that has a grip on our economy to fund a wide-spread federal government.

But don’t fire the public defender who works to advocate for our rights. Keep the inspectors general that provide transparency on our tax dollars. Continue letting the courts hear disputes so we can see compensation for a transgression of our rights. These are all services provided by the government. While the government may be the biggest enemy of liberty, it is not always so.

Some may argue that abolishing the federal government would reduce our fiscal responsibilities dramatically while still keeping the various state governments, but this is still insufficient to protect our rights.

One of the most significant benefits of the federalist system is the ability to check the actions of the subnational governments in a forum that isn’t in their own courts and under their own laws. When California commits an act that contravenes our federal Constitution, the matter is taken to the federal courts where the federal government acts as the protector of rights. It is, in that example, the government of governments.

In the case of foreign affairs, the authors of the Constitution knew that having thirteen disunited states with their own foreign affairs policies would breed issues. John Jay, writing for the Federalist Papers, acknowledged that “the safety of the people of America against dangers from foreign force depends not only on their forbearing to give just causes of war to other nations, but also on their placing and continuing themselves in such a situation as to not invite hostility or insult.” And what about when an actual attack is imminent? Jay would then go on to write: “Apply these facts to our own case. Leave America divided into thirteen or, if you please, into three or four independent governments—what armies could they raise and pay—what fleets could they ever hope to have? If one was attacked, would the others fly to its succor, and spend their blood and money in its defense?”

Jay raises a valid point. We are safer united under the American flag than disillusioned under fifty separate flags where each one has no federal government to answer to, nor any commitment to protect each other from foreign invasion. While our current federal government is not pretty by any means in the eyes of Libertarians, it certainly cannot be abolished if we are to remain starry-eyed about the prospects of liberty.

This piece solely expresses the opinions of the author, and not necessarily the Classical Liberal Caucus as a whole.

The Classical Liberal Caucus is dedicated to promoting classical liberal principles, involvement, and professionalism in and through the Libertarian Party. Join and help us make liberty classical again.

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