6.2.4.3 Small Government and ‘Laissez-Faire’

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6243.htm)

Conservatives who believe in small government distrust concentrated power, seeing it as potentially oppressive and liable to change.  They see politicians as unqualified to take important decisions on behalf of the population and argue that government should be non-intrusive: letting people make their own choices for the most part.

It is argued, in this form of conservatism, which is also known as ‘laissez-faire’, that it is safer to leave most of the power to institutions and markets – allowing them to make most of the detailed administrative decisions and to evolve naturally.[1]  This is consistent with neoliberalism (3.5.9.1) in economic decision-making.

The Republican Tea Party movement, which emerged in 2009, is a recent example of this type of conservatism.  Its name harks back to the Boston Tea Party, which was a protest against British taxation without representation; its supporters cite the American Constitution as granting only limited powers to the Federal government.

Conservatives of this type share their aversion to tax with libertarians (6.2.2), which is why the two groups are often to be found in the same political party – as is the case with Republicans in America – even though the underlying reasoning is different, as Hayek pointed out (6.2.1).

A small central government is synonymous with low taxes, so wealthy people have a very strong motive to reduce its scope.  As discussed later (6.4.5.2), wealthy Americans make large political donations to support politicians who promise to cut taxes.

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[1] Michael Oakeshott described distributed power in the following terms:

“In short, we consider ourselves to be free because no one in our society is allowed unlimited power – no leader, faction, party or ‘class’, no majority, no government, church, corporation, trade or professional association or trade union.  The secret of its freedom is that it is composed of a multitude of organizations in the constitution of the best of which is reproduced that diffusion of power which is characteristic of the whole.”

This appeared in The Political Economy of Freedom, in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, p.  41.  He was writing about Britain in 1949 – but it is no longer a valid description of British society, which now has more power vested in central government.

Edmund Burke’s famous quotation on distributed power, in Reflections on the French Revolution para.  75, argued that it also increases social cohesion:

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.  It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.  The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.”

This work was available in April 2018 at www.bartleby.com/24/3/.