When we try to classify politics or to assign a political identity to people we know or know about, we typically use their position on just one or two issues to do so. Sometimes we use a combination of three, but this is very unusual and much less common than using just one.
The reason for doing things this way is that the issue in question is particularly salient for many people and as such is the question around which many other disagreements tend to align, even when there is no logical reason why they should do so. From time to time, the issue we use to identify people politically may change, and in that event we have a political realignment.
For almost a hundred years now, and certainly since just before the Second World War, the big question that we have used in this way has been that of the size of government, particularly with regard to its economic role. The division that most people have in their minds when they think of politics and how to distinguish “Right” and “Left” is that between those who think that government should be as small as possible (spend as little as possible of the total product of society) and those who favor a large and expansive government that consumes and directs a large part of the product, maybe even more than half of it.
A Better Way
A more subtle and insightful way of thinking about this is to see it as a division over the extent of politics — that is, over the range and number of topics that are thought to be appropriate subjects for political debate and therefore of state action and legislation.
Some think that politics should be circumscribed and limited to a small number of matters, while others think that anything that affects a large number of people (which amounts to most of actual life) should be subject to a collective decision-making process. The disagreement here is not just about the size of government (how much money and resources it controls) but over its scope (how much of life is the subject of political argument and decision-making).
These ways of thinking and identifying people’s political orientation are useful. That is because the issue in question is hugely important, and it is indeed the question or set of questions around which most politics has revolved since at least the early twentieth century. So it reflects political reality in most countries.
As such, it is a guide that tells us a great deal about where people, parties, or thinkers stand — or it was until recently. However, it is also limited. In some ways, it conceals as much as it illuminates in terms of understanding the nature of political disagreement and division.
Partly this is because the division makes less sense outside Europe and North America; it does not work in Japan, for example, and is in many ways a secondary division in the politics of Latin America. More fundamentally, it does not really grasp the more fundamental divisions in the politics of the modern (i.e., post-1820) world. Consequently, it can lead people to think that they have more in common with some people and less in common with others than they actually have, because the focus on the size of government leads to other kinds of issues and divisions being downplayed.
The problem is that knowing that someone favors large or small government, by itself, tells you very little. What you need to know, beyond that, is what their ultimate political and social values are.
Suppose somebody supports a large, expansive, and active government. That by itself doesn’t tell you much. You might assume that they are also egalitarians, in favor of a socialist economy, and with certain views on social issues (such as being opposed to the death penalty). That though would be a mistake, making the particular set of views that are commonly linked to support for large government in the contemporary United States inevitably associated with values. They are not so associated.
The question you need to know the answer to is what this person thinks big government is for. What is its purpose, and what ends does all this government spending and activity lead to? In other words, why have a large government in the first place? Nobody is actually in favor of an expansive state as an end in itself; they support it because they think it is required to realize some other end or ends. Those are the ultimate values, and it is those that matter.
Three Kinds of Big-Government Supporters
In recent history, there have been three broad classes of answers to that question, or to put it another way three quite different kinds of advocates of a large state, with quite distinct ends that they think can be realized through it. For some, the aim is to sustain a traditional social order and way of life and defend them from perceived threats, from both outsiders and factors such as economic forces and social transformations. A goal of large government for many such people is national greatness or power, or national prosperity and self-sufficiency. The state is often seen as needed to enforce a traditional morality, or set of principles and behaviors. This is the politics of people such as Bismarck.
A quite different group of people think the purpose of large government is to bring about equality and social unity, to create a shared and common way of life, maybe to radically change the nature of human beings or at least the way they live together.
There is also a third group, currently larger than the first two in most developed countries, of people who think you need a large and active government to enable people to pursue and realize their own life plans and goals and to give them greater agency.
In other words, we can distinguish (broadly speaking) big-government conservatives who want to use the state to preserve and grow an established order, big-government radicals or egalitarians who think its goal should be to promote equality and radical social change, and big-government liberals who think extensive government can be used to help people become more effectively free.
These are three quite different kinds of politics and if applied in unmixed form would lead to three quite different kinds of government and politics (although there are interesting commonalities). The fact that they all support large government is in some ways less important than the clearly contrasting ends that they have in mind for the state and politics.
Three Kinds of Big-Government Opponents
So if we have three different kinds of support for an active state, what about the other side? One view is that there is a single body of small-state libertarians opposed to all of the varieties of big-state collectivists, united around the ideas of limiting politics and government power and the principle of live and let live.
However, this is not true: there is as much variety among small-government supporters over ultimate political and social values as there is among advocates of large government. Just as knowing that someone favors large government tells you little about the full content of their politics, so knowing that someone dislikes large government tells you little.
For one thing, they may dislike large government and favor small government for very different reasons. It is the case that most opponents of large government are skeptical about the practical capacity and efficacy of government, but few are opposed to it simply on skeptical grounds. Just as friends of government disagree about what the point of an expansive state is, so opponents of government disagree about how to evaluate non-state social institutions and practices and about what constitutes an admirable or good society as opposed to one that should be criticized.
Some who favor a small government and deprecate a large one do so because they see existing evolved social institutions and ways of life as in some sense natural and therefore legitimate. In this way of thinking, human social life is the way transcendent values are instantiated and transmitted through time. The point is that the value of non-government civil society lies in the principles and ways of life that it embodies rather than the good or goals of individuals. Individuals may pursue their personal goals, but they do so in an inherited social context that will constrain them in various ways — and rightly so.
Government from this perspective is a threat to settled forms of life that have spontaneously evolved and is typically the instrument by which small elites try to overturn or transform those forms. This is the perspective of small-government conservatives.
By contrast, small-government liberals, or individualists, strictly speaking see individuals and their goals or life plans as morally and socially primary. In this view, human beings obviously live in a social context and indeed are able to achieve more because of that than if they were living as isolated Robinson Crusoes. However, it may be that institutions or ways of life that have developed spontaneously restrict the ability of individuals to pursue their goals and realize themselves and their potential, often in quite severe and stringent ways.
In that case, they should be criticized, and small-government advocates of this kind would look to institutions or practices such as free speech and experiments in living to undermine those settled ways. If the first group emphasizes spontaneous orthodoxy, this second group stresses the importance of heresy (remembering that the word “heresy” etymologically derives from the Greek word for choice). This is of course the position of authors such as Wilhelm von Humboldt or J.S. Mill. They fear large government not as a way of disrupting settled ways but as something that will limit individual choice and autonomy.
Finally of course there are also small- or no-government radicals. They see government as the means by which relations of inequality and privilege are created and sustained. For them it is also the way that real social transformation is prevented. For people of this kind, the point of civil society is that it is a voluntary but collective endeavor in which there is both a general pursuit of a transformative goal and the achievement and thereafter sustaining of a maximally good social order in which the interests of all are aligned and noncontradictory. This is the position of libertarian socialists such as Peter Kropotkin or Emma Goldman.
The point to take from this is simple but profound. Views of the desirable size and extent of government and politics are important and revealing when it comes to understanding someone’s political position and philosophy. However, it is not the only thing you need to know or even in some ways the most important.
The deeper question you need to ask and get an answer to is that of the ultimate ideas about political and social ends and goods that people hold. Essentially the question of government and its appropriate size is an important but secondary question.
People favor expansive government for different reasons and will want that government to do very different things, depending on their ultimate beliefs. Those beliefs will also typically lead them to support a government that is active in one area but not others. Conversely, opposition to large government reflects firstly what people see as mainly problematic or threatening about it and secondly what they see as the primary point or value of human society and life.