What do people mean by “small government”?

There’s a big difference between reducing the size of government and reducing the authority of the government, and they’re all too often conflated. In fact, plenty of people saying they want “smaller government” only want an inexpensive government, one that doesn’t tax them too much or redistribute in ways they dislike. Yet some of these same proponents of cheap government are also quite happy to expand the authority or power of the government, from enhanced police and surveillance powers (like warrantless wiretaps), allowing the use of torture, restrictions on abortion or marriage or free speech (say, flag-burning), etc…this could easily be a longer list.

But whether you support these things or not is irrelevant for the point I want to make; “small” governments can outlaw all kinds of things, can restrict a wide-ranging number of civil liberties and human rights—and just because a government isn’t “big” in terms of how much it costs doesn’t mean that it’s not “big” in terms of its authority and ability to interfere in the lives of its citizens. Yes, one could say that it might be harder to interfere with liberties when the government is smaller, but if the money it still does have goes to police power, then that’s not a (terribly) compelling argument. The point here is that people aren’t often clear what they mean by “small” or even “limited” government.

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