We Need Good Government, Not Small Government

To understand the tyranny that people fear from big government, we have to first identify which uses of government authority can be called evil.

People on the Right, as a general rule, don’t like big government. It’s unclear what exactly is meant by “big government,” but they dislike it all the same. They could mean a government that is big in terms of its physical size—bloated, inefficient administrative agencies that waste tax dollars. They might also mean an oppressive government that is big not in size but in intrusiveness. They may even use the term to mean some combination of the two, and I suspect that most do. 

All of these definitions fall short. When someone criticizes big government, they’re generally not just taking stock of the powers a government has and individually determining whether, in a vacuum, those powers are of the right size. Instead, they’re noticing the tyranny—or, at the very least, the potential for tyranny—that would result if someone intent on doing evil were able to seize the reins of power. 

To even understand, then, the tyranny that people fear from big government, we have to first identify which uses of government authority can be called evil. For most conservatives and libertarians, evil policies could be defined as “ones that constrain free choice.” But what is free choice? Which definition of “bodily autonomy,” for example, should we rely on in evaluating a government’s policy—the one that seeks to keep people free from forced vaccination, or the one that endorses late-term abortions? Which definition of “free speech” should we use—the one that gives you the right to speak about Jesus in public, or the one that gives other people the right to promote sin to your children?

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The root of the issue is that people don’t define good and evil by one metric, yet there is only one true way to understand morality: God’s eternal law. Catholics know it well, and it serves to clarify all of these apparent contradictions. Having a choice on vaccination is good and should be allowed, while abortion is evil and should be banned. Spreading the Gospel is good and the right to do so should be guaranteed, while promoting sin to someone else’s kids is evil and should be prohibited. See, that wasn’t so hard! 

None of this contradicts a proper reading of the Constitution or the Catholic Faith. As the Supreme Court stated in Dobbs v. Jackson, “Until the latter part of the 20th century, there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion…. Indeed, abortion had long been a crime in every single State.” As was pornography up until Miller v. California and other erroneous Supreme Court decisions. And indeed, Catholic governments (as well as a good number of popes, as heads of state) were quick to “legislate morality” in these areas. In American jurisprudence as well as the common practice of Church and lay governments, enacting law based on objective morality was widely viewed as the responsibility of a state in protecting the common good and morals of the people.

Still, even with the clarity of the Catholic Faith and an assurance of conformity to our founding document behind us, how can we solve the lingering problem that we face: in trying to make things right by promoting good and combatting evil, how do we avoid paving the way for evildoers to use that same power to do the inverse: promote evil and combat good?

In short, they already are, so there’s no sense in worrying about it. 

It’s impossible to look at the current administration and not see the abuses that have taken place. Pick your topic and you’ll find plenty of examples: forced vaccination; attempts to expand abortion; doing nothing to stop domestic terrorism against pro-life pregnancy centers, while falsely insisting that “ultra-MAGA” extremism is on the rise; weaponization of federal law enforcement agencies against pro-life Catholics; economic misconduct such that an oil-rich nation is on the verge of an energy crisis. None of these actions took place because people on the Right did them first. They took place because leftists purposely break the rules, so much so that we honestly don’t know what the rules are—for example, the scope of presidential power—until someone pushes the envelope and finds out.

It’s a fundamental misstatement of the issue to claim that the struggle in American governance is big governments versus small governments. Instead, we live in a country that has good governments, evil governments, and incompetent governments—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and the only question is how elected officials wield the authority entrusted to them.

Critics of so-called big government are certainly correct about one thing: there must be guardrails around government power. However, we should focus less on limiting authority in itself and more on preventing abuse. The best way to do so is to limit specifically evil applications of power rather than entire categories of authority.

Procedural checks, as it turns out, aren’t the only way to prevent a just government from descending into tyranny. Along with every government power goes implicitly (and often explicitly) a moral principle that justifies its existence and dictates how it ought to be used. In other words, there’s no such thing as a neutral law. Moral guidelines are attached to all rights and powers, even those laid out in our Constitution, and restoring them can alleviate our current crisis while being true to our legal tradition. 

For example, the First Amendment provides for freedom of speech. Yet, at the time the Bill of Rights was enacted, common law prohibited the publishing of obscene material. The right to prohibit obscenity was a power reserved to the states, and it clearly cut one way and not the other—states could ban pornography, but that didn’t give them the power to ban, say, Christian religious texts. 

Even the Supreme Court, up until Miller v. California in 1976, upheld state laws that prohibited obscene speech, finding them consistent with the First Amendment. From this, we can see that even the right to free speech was not intended to be a neutral legal principle. It had a clear moral precept attached to it—Christians got to distribute Bibles; secularists didn’t get to distribute pornography. For almost 200 years, there was no contradiction, and then the Court invented one.

Baked-in moral principles, which existed at the time of the founding and persisted until relatively recently, ought to be present in every originalist legal analysis of the Constitution. Their existence should encourage state legislatures to enact laws that are morally good, without regard for the legal consequences. In doing so, they may provide the right situation for a favorable Supreme Court to re-evaluate its own decisions. Recent history proves that this can happen—after all, it was the actions of brave state legislatures that got Roe v. Wade overturned.

Lawyers, for their part, need to get aggressive, rather than taking wins on the margins to carve out mere private spheres of tolerance for Christians. If history teaches us anything, it’s that tolerance can be revoked. We need to instead raise a competing claim for a Christian cultural and political order, and it all starts with restoring the law.

The Constitution can once again make sense, and the contradictions that have arisen in recent years can dissolve. Americans need to reclaim their sanity and proclaim that good government, regardless of its size, can help to solve some of the most pressing issues of our times. It’s not the only thing that’s needed—in truth, we need prayer, fasting, almsgiving, repentance, mercy, and above all, grace, far more—but it is nonetheless necessary.

I’ll leave us with a folk saying so commonly misattributed to Thomas Jefferson that it’s nearly impossible to find its actual source: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take from you everything you have.” This is true. What’s also true is that a government too weak to defend and promote the good has already surrendered to evil. The operative question of legitimate authority is not if it should be used, but how. The “how” is very simple: in line with the structure of our Constitution as originally understood, with Divine Law and Sacred Tradition as our guiding lights. If we follow such a path, we will have a far from perfect government, but perhaps we will have one that is more pleasing to God.

  • Patrick J. Moran

    Patrick J. Moran is a Catholic attorney and writer. He received his JD from the University of Florida, and a BA in Political Science from University at Albany, SUNY.

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