How Much Government Is Too Much? By Tim Ball

This article was first published on ( and is reprinted here with permission.

The amount and role of government are central to the current US and Canadian elections. It is that basic on both sides of the border. The fact that very few people have any experience of less government complicates the issue.

The US Founding Fathers discussed the question of how much government is appropriate and how much power it should have. They examined it at great length and with remarkable insight. They tried to build a system with checks and balances, but that is being sorely tested. The test is simple, those who want more government control against those who want less. Abraham Lincoln posed the question,

“Must a government of necessity be too strong for the liberties of its people or too weak to maintain its own existence?”

As Barry Goldwater advised,

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you have.”

It is clear Canada and the US are at the point made in an 1857 quote attributed to Lord Macaulay?

A democracy cannot survive as a permanent form of government. It can last only until its citizens discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority (who vote) will vote for the candidates promising the greatest benefits from the public purse, with the result that a democracy will always collapse from loose fiscal policies, always followed with a dictatorship.

The only role of a national government is to defend the nation and they were given the power to do what was necessary. During World War II allied nations that remained free from invasion saw their governments take considerable control. The point is people sacrificed almost every personal freedom for the war effort. Income tax was introduced as a temporary measure to pay for war. Unfortunately, governments are like people and loathe to surrender a source of income and the power it provides. In England, control was extreme with the government controlling every need from the type and amount of food and clothing through the use of ration books. Some rationing extended beyond the end of the war. I recall as a child the joyous year of 1952 when candies (sweets in England) were finally free of rationing.

While that marked freedom from extreme government control, it did not mark the end of the larger role government assumed. Income tax remained. In Britain, the Socialist government of Clement Atlee defeated Winston Churchill’s government within a few months of the war’s end. It was reasonable for the British people to desire a new form of life after the hardships and sacrifices. The problem was the new government did not want to give up much of the power since it suited their political agenda of greater government control. Although the events in Britain were more extreme than elsewhere, almost every country emerged from the war with greater government control over many aspects of everyone’s life.

Canadians experienced a use of the power of a national government to take away individual rights when Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau claimed insurrection of separatists in Quebec sufficient to implement the War Measures Act. Many expressed concerns but to no avail. The majority, frightened by kidnapping and murder, were relieved to have the government take charge. Exploitation of fear and the desire for protection exists among the majority of the citizens and is why dictatorships invariably invoke an outside threat to take absolute control.

Eventually, the cost of servicing this bigger government brought a challenge. Leaders like Reagan and Thatcher led the charge against the cost of government. Interestingly, they didn’t tackle the questions about the role and extent of government in the nation and individual’s business. In fact, Thatcher’s failure to deal effectively with the social and economic fallout created by the reduction of government likely led to her defeat.

In the current US and Canadian elections, the question of the role and extent of government is central. All parties agree governments will continue to exist, they only disagree on the extent. The majority agree that communism with absolute government control and anarchy with no government control are not the answer. Beyond that, there is a great divide among the citizens about what should be in government hands and what should be left to individual citizens and private industry.

The fact that few citizens have any experience of life with a dramatically reduced government complicates matters. Listening to your fellow citizens provides a measure of the difficulty. They will complain about too much government and too many taxes, yet the same people say about a problem, “Why doesn’t the government do something about this?” Add to this the number of people, usually over half, who prefer not to have responsibility or to make decisions for themselves. They fit George Bernard Shaws assessment that,

“A government with the policy to rob Peter to pay Paul can be assured of the support of Paul.”

Like Paul, the 50 percent benefit from the government robbing Peter to carry out those functions for them. They are not disposed to surrender a lack of personal responsibility and the largess governments provide. Maybe the conundrum is characterized in G.K.Chesterton’s comment.

“The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”

At no time since World War II has the question of the amount of government been more critical in US and Canadian elections. The question is complicated by the surrender of individual freedoms to a monolithic government for the common good of fighting a war. Now governments declare war on global warming and environmental degradation as the new threats demanding bigger government. It is an inadequate justification from any perspective, but as H L Mencken said,

“The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”

So we come back to the question Abraham Lincoln posed. It is a question that demands an answer, but few have experience of less government. They don’t know with any clarity or reason what should be public or private. However, we must be mindful of James Madison’s warning.

“Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.”