What Does Smaller Government Really Mean?

Smaller government is the foundation upon which conservative political philosophy is built. In this multi-part series, we’ll look at exactly what smaller government really means.

Not only is small government the bedrock of conservatism, it is also a political tool used by Republicans and Democrats alike. A tool used to feign conservatism when the political situation warrants it. For example, Bill Clinton took a political beating after beginning his presidency with a leftist agenda. Let’s remember the situation…

Clinton took office in January 1993 and one of the first things he did was appoint Hillary to head up planning for nationalized health care. By September 1993 that’s all anyone was talking about. Except the American people didn’t want anything to do with it. By September of 1994 HillaryCare was dead. You may also remember that his early budgets were filled with tax increases. And of course there’s Paula Jones, Whitewater, and scandal after scandal (the good ole days of Bill Clinton). By 1995 Bill Clinton was hurting badly. He turned hard to the right. By September of 1996, Bill Clinton said in a radio address:

“We will meet these challenges, not through big government. The era of big government is over…”

Smaller government is also a pivotal value in the Tea Party movement, among lower taxes and a return to an adherence to the Constitution.

But what does smaller government really mean?

First, smaller government is NOT a $3.55 Trillion budget. Let’s start there – this sum of money is so huge, it is not even possible to comprehend. The federal budget counts “mandatory” spending of about $2.1 Trillion. Mandatory – a powerful word, indeed. Mandatory means that by law, Congress must appropriate the funds. Among “mandatory” spending you’ll find Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, TARP (the bailout), and a couple hundred BILLION in interest on the debt. I understand that the interest on our debt should be paid, but these other items bring up an important question about what smaller government really means: Did Congress have the right to institute these programs in the first place?

After the mandatory spending, we have another $1.4 trillion in “discretionary” spending. This is spending on all kinds of things from the Defense Department to school lunch programs. From these discretionary funds come the infamous $600 toilet seats and $400 hammers.

Smaller government means two things. First, it means eliminating that which is wasteful or better left to the various States. Second, it means running the government with an adherence to the enumerated powers granted to the federal government by the Constitution; and specifically the 9th and 10th Amendments.

Enumerated powers are those granted to the federal government as the Constitution outlines for us. The framers of the Constitution designed the document specifically to list only the powers the Feds have – if it is not in the Constitution, the government can’t do it. This was by design because to do the opposite would be an impossibility. After all, how could anyone list every possible right a person has? Do you have the right to chew gum? Do you have the right to sit on your front porch and read a book? Virtually every aspect of life holds with it an inherent right. These are God-given rights, or inalienable rights. So instead of listing out every single right a person has been gifted by God, the Framers chose instead to list only the rights that the Federal government had – the enumerated rights. It is much easier to say, “Here is what the government can do…if it is not listed here, they may NOT do it,” than to say, “Here is a list of every possible right a person has.”

Before the Constitution was ratified by the States, the Framers explained the principle of enumeration over and over again. In Federalist 39 James Madison wrote:

“…the proposed government cannot be deemed a NATIONAL one; since its jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several States a residuary and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects.”

In Federalist 45, Madison says:

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”

(Emphasis added…)

[Sidenote: Not surprisingly, in researching I came across a blogger that sought to make a similar argument and even used Federalist 39 and 45. We independently came to the same conclusions, though acknowledgment is appropriate – see this info on enumerated powers.]

And from Federalist 41…this is the same argument repeated but this time with the eloquence Madison is famous for.

“For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity, which, as we are reduced to the dilemma of charging either on the authors of the objection or on the authors of the Constitution, we must take the liberty of supposing, had not its origin with the latter.”

What Madison is saying is that yes, there are people who think that the enumeration of powers does not necessarily limit the powers of government. That just because particulars are given does not mean those are the ONLY powers that the Federal government will have. So, yes…that is the objection…and it is flat wrong.

We have now established that the federal budget is massive and that the Constitution specifically lists the powers that the Federal government has.

So what can we do to actually make government smaller?

The first place to start is with cutting programs. Really cutting them. Entirely. To our power-hungry, demagogic politicians, and also to a corrupt press, a cut usually means a reduction in growth. So if a billion dollar program grows at 10% per year for a decade, and then a well-intentioned politician (usually a Republican) proposes slowing that growth to say 5% per year, that person is accused (usually by a Democrat) of wanting to CUT $50 Million from the program. Crafty, isn’t it? Want to see this in action? Check this out….

The headline from a 2006 hard news article on NPR.org, by some hack named Julie Rovner read, “Bush Proposes Medicare Cuts in Latest Budget.”

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

If you can make it through the first few paragraphs we find out that the “cuts” that the headline screams about are not really cuts at all. Bush proposed slowing the growth by…get this…less than 1.5%. Health & Human Services Secretary, Mike Leavitt, was quoted as saying, “Medicare will continue to grow, but at a slower rate.” So what’s the deal with the headline? Just like the demagogues in Congress, the Press wants to grow government and if you don’t agree, you’ll be demonized.

We need real cuts meaning that programs should have spending reduced, or be eliminated. We can do this with a chainsaw, or with a scalpel. Let’s start with a couple examples of using a chainsaw…

1) Eliminate the Department of Education. The 2010 Federal budget calls for $47.6 Billion for this department – a 13% increase over the previous budget. The problem with this department is that its very existence is unconstitutional. Nowhere in the aforementioned enumerated powers is the Federal Government given the power to regulate or otherwise influence educational services. This doesn’t mean that there will be no school funding. It does mean, however that paying for teachers will be a State responsibility. If it is not an enumerated power, it is left “…to the States, or to the People.” Furthermore, eliminating this department is practical on another level. Students in Alaska are very different from students in Alabama. A centralized bureaucracy is not equipped to handle the dramatic cultural and societal differences found in children of the various States. Each State is best equipped to make decisions about the education system therein.

2) Here’s a good one: Social Security. This program is also unconstitutional. Where in the Constitution does it say the Federal Government can compel you to save your money? Actually, if Social Security did compel savings, I might be inclined to let this one slide, but it doesn’t. Instead, Social Security confiscates earned wealth and dumps it right into the Treasury. Of course, the Federal government is now some $13 Trillion in debt, so the money vaporizes as soon as it is confiscated. The Social Security scam was brilliantly summarized by Bruce Bartlett in a Forbes Magazine commentary:

…The problem is that by law 100% of these “assets” [Social Security collections] are invested in Treasury securities. Therefore, the trust fund does not have any actual resources with which to pay Social Security benefits. It’s as if you wrote an IOU to yourself; no matter how large the IOU is it doesn’t increase your net worth.

We could kill this program entirely saving some $695 Billion immediately, and maybe another $45 Trillion over the next several decades. Realism must trump idealism, so how about we instead follow the plan laid out by Rep. Paul Ryan, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee:

Individuals 55 and older will remain in the current system and will not be affected by this proposal in any way: they will receive the benefits they have been promised, and have planned for, during their working years. All other workers will have a choice to stay in the current system or begin contributing to personal accounts. Those who choose the personal account option will have the opportunity to begin investing a significant portion of their payroll taxes into a series of funds managed by the U.S. government. The system would closely resemble the investment options available to Members of Congress and Federal employees through the Thrift Savings Plan [TSP]. As these personal accounts continue to accumulate wealth, they will eventually replace the funding that comes through the government’s pay-as-you-go system. This will reduce the demand on government spending, lead to a larger overall benefit for retired workers, and restore solvency to the Social Security Program.

After we get a few years into Ryan’s plan, then we can try to kill it entirely.

3) For the remaining discretionary spending, how about we agree on a 20% across the board cut? Why does the Department of Housing and Urban Development need an 18% increase in funding over last year? Why does this program exist at all? What the hell are we spending $47.5 Billion a year on? With that amount of money you could GIVE 47,500 people each a MILLION DOLLARS. Not only that, like the other programs mentioned, nowhere in the Constitution is a program like this enumerated. This is a slap in the face to the Constitution.

There are many other massive programs that are at best a complete waste and at worst unconstitutional. Here are some of them along with some commentary about what should be done with them:

$78.7 billion – Department of Health and Human Services (Doesn’t every State have a Health Department? Redundant. Kill it.)
$72.5 billion (+2.8%) – Department of Transportation (Pay for US Rt 50, the PCH and US Rt 95. Leave everything else to the States.)
$47.5 billion (+18.5%) – Department of Housing and Urban Development (Unconstitutional. Kill it.)
$46.7 billion (+12.8%) – Department of Education (Unconstitutional. Kill it.)
$26.3 billion (-0.4%) – Department of Energy (Their mission was originally to reduce dependency on foreign oil. Ha! What a failure. Kill it.)
$26.0 billion (+8.8%) – Department of Agriculture (A leftover from FDR. Unconstitutional. Kill it.)
$13.8 billion (+48.4%) – Department of Commerce (What a waste of time and money. Kill it.)
$13.3 billion (+4.7%) – Department of Labor (Does this do anything for anybody? Kill it.)
$12.0 billion (+6.2%) – Department of the Interior (Sell off 90% of all federal lands and reduce the budget line to $2 Million a year. Windfall to pay back national debt.)
$10.5 billion (+34.6%) – Environmental Protection Agency (Unconstitutional. Kill it.)
$9.7 billion (+10.2%) – Social Security Administration (Ha! About $700 Billion in payouts and these scammers need another $10 billion to fund their bureaucracy?!)
$7.0 billion (+1.4%) – National Science Foundation (Unconstitutional. Kill it.)
$5.1 billion (-3.8%) – Corps of Engineers (Doesn’t the Army do this already? Is this one and the same as the Army Corps of Engineers? Regardless, kill it.)
$5.0 billion (+100%) – National Infrastructure Bank (Private banks work just fine – even better. Kill it.)
$1.1 billion (+22.2%) – Corporation for National and Community Service (Don’t even know what this is but it sounds bad. Kill it.)
$0.7 billion (0.0%) – Small Business Administration (Unconstitutional. Kill it.)
$19.8 billion (+3.7%) – Other Agencies
$105 billion – Other (WTF??? $105 Billion on “other?” THIS is what we mean by making government smaller. How about we eliminate a HUNDRED AND FIVE BILLION DOLLARS for “other.” Sheesh.

This concludes Part I of this mini-series, What Smaller Government Really Means. Next we’ll be talking about some of the small, individual earmarks that add up to a whole mess of “other.” We’ll take out the scalpel next – stay tuned…



  1. Bob Marshall says:

    Great article. Just think if all this was done then military spending was reduced, the income tax system was overhauled, the Federal Reserve was kept in check and we reduced our dependcy on foreign oil by renewed drilling both in the gulf and off the coast of Alaska jobs could be created and our country could be on the way back to the great nation that had the respect and admiration of the world. We should defend our borders but not nation build.

  2. Thanks, Bob. You summed up in one paragraph what it took me some 1000 words to explain. The trick, however, it voting into power those who would execute on our reforms. Simple enough, but difficult. The rise of the conservative movement in Tea Party form is just the beginning…

  3. bill r. says:

    MMMM. You missed one. Every state has a nation guard. So we can eliminate the US military. Not to mention the millions of citzens with assault style weapons. Its easy to talk about passing things down to the states. The states have to live by a balanced budget, so they either stop the service, raise taxes, or get the funding from the fed. You pass enough things down to the state level, our states will start looking like 50 countries. I say start with getting the corruption out of Washington, if that is even humanly possible.

  4. wow that is a lot to taken in. And I feel the anger in the words. My only question is why Paul Ryan thinks shutting down SSA redirecting the funds to another government run agency is better?

  5. I’m inclined to agree with you, Lee. I can take a crack at what Ryan is thinking… I think that he knows abolishing SSA will not happen, so instead he is suggesting that instead of sending money directly to the treasury, payroll taxes are sent to an actual personal account and invested in any of several choices. The choices would be government approved. I’m betting Ryan thinks that the “government approved” part keeps the security in Social Security. Of course, I have no way to look into the man’s mind, so this is just a guess.

    The system that Ryan suggests is better than the current one because at least we would have an account, tied to each of us as an individual and that could be invested – actually invested – as opposed to vaporized in the treasury.

    My problem is that the federal government has no such authority in either case. Compelling you to invest money is no different than compelling you to buy something. No matter how you slice it, it’s tyranny.

    I think it was Alexis de Tocqueville who suggested that the worst kind of tyranny is the kind that is for the good of the people, or something like that…

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