Minimum government is one of the sacred beliefs of conservatives. This belief is tightly bound to low taxes, personal responsibility, and the virtue of a free and unencumbered market. According to conservatives, these are the things that will bring about the best society.
There remain, however, a number of things to be decided about what this optimum world consists of and how to bring it about. Exactly what does “minimum government” mean? The quote “that government is best which governs least”, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and a few others, is catchy, but doesn’t explain what “least” means.
Without question, our government must protect us against military aggression, so there must be a strong military. Liberals and conservatives disagree only on what constitutes a strong military. Government must manage the duties of the nation, such as lawmaking, printing money, the post, and international relations. These and a few others are the ones mentioned in the Constitution, and strict “originalists” say that is where it must stop. But modern life is complex, and demands certain other functions from government. Radical conservatives want to dismantle Education, Environment, Health, Safety, Housing, Transportation, Aviation, and practically everything else, it seems.
Some seventy years or so after the US of A got underway, Karl Marx described in detail how the capitalist world actually worked, and it wasn’t pretty. Now, what Marx and others who came later dreamed up as the answer turned out to be a nightmare, which is now largely over, thankfully. However, Marx was spot on in explaining the capitalist imperatives, which have not changed to this day, and America is nothing if not capitalist. So whatever else constitutes our minimal government, capitalist imperatives will force their way into our deliberations.
Profit is the entire reason for capitalism, and profit goes entirely to owners; workers are paid a set wage, and their influence ends there except for unions, now at low ebb. Nothing outside the business is of concern to the business, because it exists only for profit. Minimizing the cost of wages, among other things, serves to maximize profit. Ignoring such things as environmental and social responsibilities also boosts profit, and no business can afford to satisfy such requirements unless everyone is so required. This can only occur with proper laws and regulatory apparatus.
How can we have minimal government if it gives business free rein to ignore our lives and wellbeing? What is government for, if not to protect the lives and interests of the people? We could only minimize government if capitalism were consistently responsible to society, their employees, and the natural environment, three areas where they are most often irresponsible. It is not the capitalists themselves that are the problem, it is the impersonal capitalist imperatives, which largely boils down to the imperative to maximize profit. Because of this the ideal minimalist government will fail to provide adequate income to the workers to the extent possible, among many other things. Workers’ income will always be too low to provide many of the necessities of a modern society, because the capitalist imperative is to pay the least wage possible.
Woe be to the man who becomes seriously ill in such a setting, particularly if his family fulfills the conservative ideal of the man as sole earner, because he doesn’t earn enough money to pay for insurance with uncontrolled capitalist imperatives. Such an illness will bring him early death, but not before all his assets are lost and his family is ruined. Low taxes didn’t help. Personal responsibility didn’t help. Unregulated capitalism ensured that he could not earn enough money to save himself without society’s help. But society didn’t help, because everything depended on personal responsibility, and personal responsibility wasn’t enough because of capitalist imperatives.
The idea of minimal government is catchy. Everyone wants to keep things simple so that Michelle Bachmann can make chipper pronouncements about her optimism. But such optimism is not realistic. If conservatives want a tiny government, they must explain how to make it work for the benefit of We the People, and not just the 1% who have the money and power.