The Case For Small Government

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That was the subject, broadly speaking, of Charles Murray's address at the annual AEI dinner, and like Jonah Goldberg and John Miller I found a lot to like in the speech, but some things to raise an eyebrow at as well. At bottom, I think the argument suffers from a problem that's common to both sides in the debates over the desirability of European-style social democracy - namely, the hope that what's ultimately a philosophical and moral controversy can have a tidy empirical resolution. So long as Murray's speech is making the philosophical case for limited government - that human existence in the shadow of a nanny state doesn't conduce to "Aristotelian happiness," as he puts it, because it strips human beings of the deeper sorts of agency and responsibility that ought to be involved in a life well lived - he's on firm (if obviously arguable) ground. But when he segues into the possibility that the emerging science of human nature will "prove" the limits of welfare-statism, and force liberals to give ground, I think he's indulging in a conservative version of Jon Chait's famous argument that liberals support bigger government because they're rigorous empiricists, whereas conservatives oppose it because they're hidebound dogmatists. In both cases, there's an unwarranted hope that the right facts and figures can settle a debate that ultimately depends on the philosophical assumptions that you bring to it.

I don't want to dismiss the arguments about the practical costs and benefits associated with different styles of welfare states, mind you. I like those arguments, and they matter a great deal. I would just deny that they can come close to settling, in any meaningful sense, the debate over how big the American welfare state should be overall, and whether we should copy Western Europe or disdain it. That's because both the American and the European models of government are successful in purely practical terms, to the extent that purely practical terms exist - which is to say, both models have provided, over an extended period of time, levels of prosperity and stability unparalleled in human history. (Yes, the stresses that Islamic immigration and demographic decline are imposing on Europe are real and serious - but I think it's too soon to say, with Murray and many on the Right, that "the European model can't continue to work much longer," full stop. The end of history may be more resilient than we think!) And as long as this remains the case, where you come out on the debates over whether we should prefer the continent's sturdier safety nets to America's lower unemployment and higher growth rates (or the continent's more equible provision of health care to America's lead in health-care innovation, or what-have-you) will ultimately boil down to values as much as it will to what the numbers say.

How much do you prize equality and ease of life? The more you do, the more you'll favor a European approach to the relationship between state and society. How much do you prize voluntarism, entrepreneurship, and the value of lives oriented around service to one's family, and to God? The more you do, the more you'll find to like in the American arrangement. Where this debate is concerned, I'm proud to stand with Charles Murray - but I don't think that we should labor under the false hope that scientific advances are going to tilt the argument dramatically in our direction.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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