The Big Smothering State

By Edward Hadas
August 1, 2012

For more than three centuries, defenders of people’s freedom and dignity against the oppression of governments have frequently focused on economic depredations. In the 17th century, John Locke decried unjust limits on private property. In the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek attacked the state’s control of the means of production. The Austrian philosopher, who is a kind of patron saint for today’s crusaders against big government, was certain that men could not be free without free markets. He saw socialist economics behind all big governments, which he believed to be universally oppressive.

It is not only the enemies of powerful governments who have considered economic matters to be pre-eminent. The followers of Karl Marx disagreed totally with Hayek about government and freedom. They thought free markets led only to the oppression of the poor by the rich and that large states were needed to defend true freedom. However, like Hayek, they put the economy at the centre of the debate about the proper role of government. They merely reversed his primary prescription, with pure Marxists calling for total government control of the economy and revisionists calling for a strong state and a carefully limited private sector.

The revisionist Marxists are now known in Europe as Social Democrats and in the United States as Democrats (although few would admit this intellectual ancestry). They have had their way with the economy throughout the developed world – and the economies have basically flourished. Extensive, active and basically honest governments are good economic stewards. Big governments support and supervise the massive investment projects, complex technological standards and the astounding diversity of tasks required for industrial economies to thrive. Thorough tax systems restrain the rich while welfare benefits protect the poor.

Still, economic success is not enough to justify the ambitious and intrusive contemporary approach to government. The Big State should be judged by a more complex standard than simple material prosperity.

Hayek feared the terrible regimes of the Stalinist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Modern governments are nothing like those Big Oppressive States. Still, they can fairly be called Big Smothering States. There are three ways in which the government makes society less free, and in all of them the economy is the exception.

First, contemporary governments deal primarily with individuals; they generally ignore, restrict or repress what sociologists call civil society – families, churches, schools, unions and other sorts of voluntary organisations. The state increasingly guides and restricts the actions of these once largely autonomous groups. As the freedom and authority of intermediate organisations is reduced, the power and authority of the state is increased. It becomes harder to find activities which are not closely supervised by the government.

In contrast, civil society is thriving in the economy, in the form of corporations. These enterprises can develop their own cultures and communities with relatively little interference from the government. Some employees may find the cultures inane or even inhumane, but at least the state mostly leaves them alone.

Second, the Big State relies on smothering bureaucracies. Over the last three generations governments’ rule-books and administrative staffs have expanded massively. The result is that the freedom and creativity needed to educate, care, punish and help are restricted by overly rigid rules and regulations. Moral concerns are often ignored.

In the economy, though, bureaucracy is basically beneficial. Only rule-bound hierarchical organisations could organise the thousands of strangers well enough to provide the many goods of industrial prosperity. Government and corporate bureaucracies form an almost seamless web.

Third, modern governments pursue a controversial social agenda. Locke’s vision of governments which leave as much of life as possible to the governed, has disappeared. Modern states have precise goals for school curricula, health care, art, sport and sexual roles. In most domains, the state’s vision is shared by the majority of the population, but that still leaves a deeply opposed minority smothered by the state’s demands for conformity.

Once again, it is quite different in the economy. There the basic goals of the Big State – increased prosperity and ample opportunities for work – are much less controversial. I would argue for some modifications, for example less much emphasis on GDP growth and more on labour and the environment. In comparison to the debates on social policy, though, such complaints are little more than quibbles.

The crusade against big government needs a new patron. Hayek’s focus on economics makes the attack look silly, for he is complaining about modern government at its best. It would be better to draw a clear distinction between the generally helpful Big State of the economy and the Big Smothering State of the rest of society. Of course, the two developed together and remain closely entwined. It is worth trying to pry them apart – to let the first flourish and the second wither.


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You overlook the fact that John Locke was a defender of, and advocate for, slavery. He thought owning people was just another form of property rights. If he is one of your anti-government heroes, then it calls into question your entire thesis. And calling Democrats Marxists is just more Tea Party drivel.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

Note that he’s in support of government action in the economy, and pointing out that many of the conceits of the far Right are flat out wrong.

And unions and Democrats do owe a philosophical debt to Marx, who was big on social power of government and organizing the common man. That’s not the same as being a socialist or communist, it’s a head nod to one of the big thinkers that define what it means to be on the Left of the political spectrum…a duty to the people, instead of homage to the individual.


Posted by REDruin | Report as abusive

By their fruits shall thy know them. The reason there is no Socialist Party in these United States is simple. Every plank in the Socialist Platform at the beginning of the last century is, today, established government policy.

The same kinds of people that were Bolshevist bullies in Russia are union thugs in America. Every society has them, and must eventually put them in “their place”, which is in jail.

Government in the U.S. today is having a middle-aged identity crisis “We, the people” can ill afford. Lead, follow, or get out of the way!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Mr. Hadas – All you seem to suggest is to substitute a state where a person may actually vote for a state where only the owners of shares vote in proportion to the value of their investments.

How is the corporate world any different than feudalism?

The corporate world allows no room for the small businessperson or anyone unemployed or unemployable.

In my neighborhood, the local grocery chain store is an expensive store. A local wholesaler has also set up a small outlet that is stocked so well that I try never to go to the big chain store except for some things it doesn’t carry like milk and bread. The chain store occupies a new shiny and bright building and has notes to pay. The other rents a smaller place in a much older and even a slightly shabby building. The basic goods I get at the local wholesaler are a third the cost of the chain store. Big smother corporations exist too you know. The wholesaler survives while all the two other grocery stores disappeared the moment the big one landed. There are only a few big defense contractors. They are the Grand Seigneurs.

And a few years in a large defense contractor – was a lesson in high-end welfare as far as I could see. They have their ways with billing hours and the issues are so complex, and they divide authority and decision making in Byzantine ways, I really wonder if they would rank much higher than the welfare mom who probably isn’t nearly as clever at knowing how the bilk the system.

“Modern states have precise goals for school curricula, health care, art, sport and sexual roles. In most domains, the state’s vision is shared by the majority of the population, but that still leaves a deeply opposed minority smothered by the state’s demands for conformity.”

Where? What are you taking about? Hitler, Stalin and the Chinese had particular ideas about the role of art and the type of art they considered good. But I don’t think your comment applies to the USA because other than the Washington DC arguments about suitable monuments, there is hardly any discussion about them, it seems, anymore anywhere. Unless I look myself for art news, it doesn’t seem to come up at all on the Internet home page or even in this paper. I can’t remember one article in the years I have been reading this site.

I just noticed – you have an arts section. Reuters never features it. I never noticed it.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

A key distinction I think you miss is that of a freely adopted government with a territory and population that is self-defined and a government as an independent entity conceived of, as in medieval times, as a “corporate” state, primarily a “property” owner, whether commercial, slave-owning, employing, or real estate holding, free to “hire and fire” and independent of the human beings under its control. This latter version is the new State as conceived of in the USA. Everything is State property. Everyone is a disposable slave who owes the State while the State has no significant obligations to its human property.

In one case, the State is created voluntarily by the people, and in the other it is an enslaving giant free to do exactly as it pleases. Free people are not held in place by chains. Free people do not have foreigners injected into their midst involuntarily at State command.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

Just to be clear, your analysis of John Locke is a little simplistic, IntoTheTardis. John Locke was a founder of liberalism and a founder of the concept that government exists for the will of the people. His comments in the Two treatises are that the condition of slavery of a continued state of war, meaning it is proper for a slave to continue to resist and fight against an owner.

He was certainly a hypocrite; he owned property in a slave trading company and wrote in the Fundamental Constitutions that an owner had total control over his slaves. Even so, he advocated, as you put it, that no present form of slavery can be legitimate and that slaves must try to escape and/or fight back.

@Paintcan: The reasons the big corporations are cheaper than the smaller, local companies are multitude, but one of those reasons is that regulatory requirements make it hard for small businesses to succeed while big businesses can absorb the costs.

As far as defense contractors byzantine ways, that speaks to the lack of oversight possible with government expenditures more than a failing of private business. I can guarantee that people who subcontract to Walmart can’t get away with cheating their client as easily as can a defence contractor.

@Mr. Hadas, you are generally wrong about the economic damage of big government, but you are generally right about the social aspect. Big Government, by its nature, must play favorites. Business, because of its ability to pay taxes and bribes… err… campaign contributions, will win out over social groups who have less of an economic impact. The only fix that will work is not to further increase the size of government, but to restrict governments ability to take away life, liberty, and property. Trying to redirect big government toward “labour and the environment” won’t do anything beyond making one more hurdle for small businesses to jump through to succeed. Businesses need to be focused on individual achievement, not group benefit, in order to succeed.

You can’t plan what free people must do and still be able to call it freedom.

Posted by ModerateRant | Report as abusive

The idea that ” In the economy, though, bureaucracy is basically beneficial. Only rule-bound hierarchical organisations could organise the thousands of strangers well enough to provide the many goods of industrial prosperity. Government and corporate bureaucracies form an almost seamless web.” is the lie we are indoctrinated to believe. This idea is false.

Here is a factual example: In home health care in the US, ONLY RN services (supervisory or otherwise) can be billed for. The RN receives only

Posted by robtennant | Report as abusive

Andrew Jackson was a Democrat. Carl Marx was writing Das Kapital in the Rotunda of the British Museum about the time the Americans were fighting the civil War. I think it was published in the 1870′s.

The American Northeast and Midwest saw the appearance of the Shaker communities (that date from Mother Ann’s founding of the first in Britain in the 1750′s and I understand that Marx knew about them and other utopian experiments here and in Europe. The Shakers, and later the Oneidans and the Fourierists appeared about the time of Marx but they were probably not his readers. The idea that wealthy men and powerful institutions can crush small holders and small businessmen is as old as the ancient Romans. It didn’t take Marx to invent the idea of exploited workers. It seems a stretch to say that Marx was an importance influence on the Democratic Party. The French Revolution was well known everywhere and seen as a hope in many parts of the world. But the Reign of Terror was not applauded here and disgusted the British.

Something has changed in political culture. The Republicans used to be symbolized by the elephant and the Democrats by the Donkey. I enjoy thinking about the meaning of symbols. The elephant has a long memory, can carry immense burdens and can step on a donkey. But the donkey in stubborn and can kick the elephant in the unspeakable. (in these pages anyway).

No one used elephants here for labor on farmlands. They used the donkey, oxen, mules and draft horses. Rajas and Kings used elephants. The political cartoons of the time were fond of the rich man versus the small poor man. One I just looked at lampooned Jackson as “King Jackson” for fighting the influence of the Philadelphia Banker, Nicholas Biddle as the “hydra of Corruption”.

The current argument with the influence of Wall Street bankers is actually nothing new. The argument about size of government seems to overlook the fact that a smaller central government might well give rise to much larger state governments and still not quite shrink the size of the central government at all. The two levels may be the only big employers in the country only because so many people on the planet are paid far lower wages for the same things we do here. The country can’t build a wall around itself without inviting every other country to snub it as well. The domestic manufacturing may not happen because the low wage countries can sell to each other. The country seems to be aging, running out of space that isn’t already well staked out by someone waiting for development to occur or not wanting it to happen at all to protect their own interests.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

“In contrast, civil society is thriving in the economy, in the form of corporations. These enterprises can develop their own cultures and communities with relatively little interference from the government. Some employees may find the cultures inane or even inhumane, but at least the state mostly leaves them alone.”
Benito Mussolini, one of the Axis leaders in WWII, tried this in the 1930′s Italy. Basically what happens is the wealthy corporation owners bought off the dictatorial government, Mussolini in this example, and made him their puppet to control the masses to their own liking. The Ayn Rand devotees, the new Mussolini-like corporatists, are trying to establish a similar, heartless system here in America.

Posted by wrylyfox | Report as abusive

Why not mention Hayek’s well documented,long-lasting love affair with assorted extreme right-wing, or just plain fascist regimes (overt,or closeted, Pinochet et al.) and dictators? His rather vocal approval of limiting/abolishing democracy and democratic freedoms “when expedient”? Hayek – a model “freedom fighter” – what a joke!!!
And calling US democrats “socialists”, just because they stand (mostly) to the left of the Republicans is not just a stretch, but highly misledaing. The US has never had anything approximating socialist movement, unlike Europe.

Posted by DLT | Report as abusive

This can be defended
“There the basic goals of the Big State – increased prosperity and ample opportunities for work – are much less controversial.”

This is meaningless:

“Third, modern governments pursue a controversial social agenda.”
“but that still leaves a deeply opposed minority smothered by the state’s demands for conformity.”

How about talking about what you really mean when you say big government needs a new patron.

Posted by gmgj | Report as abusive

As a doctor I can attest to the “smothering” idea.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

It was Repub Reagan that began union busting in earnest, lest we forget. Let’s keave the world to corporate control? Who’d you rather have in charge of healthcare, a profiteer?

Posted by rexran | Report as abusive

“In most domains, the state’s vision is shared by the majority of the population”. Most agree to the state’s vision because they prefer a master. Either the government or their employer, most choose one, and maybe both. They choose to follow since they are then not personally responsible for what they know will be a failed life. So, I wouldn’t use the word shared. I would say “In most domains, the state’s vison is provided to the majority for their consumption.” They are passive in it’s acceptance and ignorant of it’s creation, but nevertheless often vociferous in it’s defense. But then, many people feel closer to God when they whip themselves with a leather strap, and I don’t understand that either.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The facts: Unions and democrats are socialists. Marxism is a type of socialism.

All government is oppressive. It is too big and too powerful. Most government is unnecessary.

Democracy is not a good form of government; it may be better than other forms, but it is not a good form.

The facts no one wants to read.

Learn to think for yourself.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

I love how people talk about big government, as if it is a monolith. Somethings need to go, and some things are necessary. Also, Adam Smith and John Locke were pre-capitalist, in that they had no idea the power that “private individuals” (now giant corporations) would acquire. I think that a good case can be made that if these figures lived to today, they would be with the occupy wall street crowd, though certainly not the tea-party. They fought against centralized control IN GENERAL, it just happened that in their day, no one could imagine any form of central control other than the kings! Hayek, on the other hand is just a religious fanatic, sometimes proven partially correct by conscious manipulation by the super-rich.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive


People talk about things that threaten THEM. “Big government” is most definitely monolithic in the many, many ways it threatens individuals’ potential AND achievement.

The founding fathers understood this, and made their federal government structurally ponderous and resistant to change. I like the explanation: “Pro is the opposite of con, as in “Progress” and “Congress”.

While I

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

While I have little faith in the overall “philosophy” of those who seem to flock to the Tea Party, it’s major goal of a smaller, less expensive government (of necessity, more efficient” both willing and able to “live within it’s means” is perhaps one of the lesser evil of today’s choices.

I can’t identify with the lust of “mainstream” Democrats and Republicans for ever-more tax revenue AND a ever-higher “debt limit”. This path, over time, ends ONLY with these United States becoming a “collectivist” nation.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@usagadly – you say “A key distinction I think you miss is that of a freely adopted government with a territory and population that is self-defined and a government as an independent entity conceived of, as in medieval times, as a “corporate” state, primarily a “property” owner, whether commercial, slave-owning, employing, or real estate holding, free to “hire and fire” and independent of the human beings under its control.”

I’m not sure where you are getting this model for the Medieval or feudal government?

In medieval society – the king theoretically owned everything and even the titles of Dukes (at the top), and a variety of subcatagories of Nobility, were granted and could be withdrawn at his discretion.

But it was not until the age of the absolutist governments – Phillip II of Spain, Henry XVIII of England, Francois I, and especially the Bourbons of France, etc. that Kings really had the control of the nobility and created strong central governments. They did that to stabilize the definitions of their territories and to reduce the threat of civil war. But this is a very short description of what was going on. Louis XIV fought expensive wars with the Dutch because, even though the territory was “French” the Dutch were making commercial use of the north of France that meant they profited more than the state from the production of the region.

Medieval towns did not actually always own the land on which they were built. They obtained charters from the Dukes who governed provinces. Dukes are a political role created by the emperor Diocletion during the waning years of the Roman Empire. They might even have paid a rent of tribute to him. Everything else within the town walls and its environs might be a variety of freeholds and or long-term leases. The English still live with this legacy in the City of London. Both the Dukes of Bedford and Westminster actually have title to large parts of the City of London and the City of Westminster. They can hold control of 999-year leases. Subleases were written over the centuries in 99-year (and other) spans, as I understand it. Freeholds also exist but I don’t know much about how they were originated or who has them.

Any structures built on those sites revert to the original lessor at the end of the lease. A decade or so ago, a 200 year old hospital building across from the lower east corner of Hyde Park reverted to the Duke of Westminster. All of Bedford, Square and large parts of Covent Garden are built on land leased from the Dukes of Bedford over 300 years ago. They developed the land as Bedford Square, and the Covent Garden Market. They were responsible for the construction of Inigo Jones’, St Paul’s Church, in Covent Garden. Other than the Hospital reversion, this does not make the Dukes enormous amounts of money unless they also have actual buildings that they can rent out at current prices. The rents are still only paid in amounts determined centuries ago. And I think they are paid in Guineas, the currency traditional used by the nobility. It’s more or a ritual than anything else now.

New York City is actually almost as complicated for a few buildings. The Empire State Building had about three owners until recently. An insurance company owned the site, a Japanese business man bought the building and the Helmsley Corp. has a 99 year lease on the interior. All occupants sublet from them at a substantial markup. Donald Trump resented the lease because he bought the building from the Japanese businessman’s daughter who went to jail over a complicated issue related to the ownership of that building. Trump wanted to oust the Helmsleys’s on issues of maintenance of the interiors, but I don’t know what happened. I read a book about the machinations surrounding the Empire State Building, about ten years ago, and I think there may be many other mega buildings that are owned in the city with such varied subdivided ownership.

Governments don’t get smaller. They only change definitions and “redecorate”. The French revolution didn’t change France from being an absolutist central state. They were only able to replace the nobility who held key positions with occupants more representative of the “people”. They were never able to remove the influence of aristocrats but only to add more positions and to limit their control. In fact, the survivors of the Terror actually caused another minor revolution at the time of Louis Phillipe, or Louis Napoleon (I didn’t look this up now) when they sued the government for their lost estates. The revolution confiscated the property of emigrees, but so did the American Congress confiscate the property of Tories who fled to England. Martha’s Vineyard once belonged to the Duke of Kent, I think?

I’m sure you can find better information on Wikipedia about all of this.

The medieval towns were not independent of the persons under their control. It was the major businessmen who controlled them and everyone else had limited franchise or none at all.

I’m reading an article now about the fracking occurring in Pennsylvania. The state legislature has been under the control of big business since the robber baron years. The state legislature has written laws that don’t permit municipalities any right to prevent fracking. They have limited control of land use within their borders. PA also removes a great deal of local control over education. Because the Amish would have no public schools in their own areas if the choice was left to them,, the state was forced to write laws that over ride all towns. PA residents have no control over local school finding.

The issue of State’s Rights is a little suspicious to me and should be. Somebody is up to something and people would be wise to be skeptical. It could back fire on those who dream of greater “freedom.”

No one is ever “free. Laws govern every move you make and we are generally happiest when they are fair and more or less unnoticed. But the lack of them makes people very upset just as easily as too many. One can’t easily define “free”, “fair”, “equitable”, “transparent”, or even “just”. They are always a matter of working definitions. And they are prone to bending when the “people” are corrupt or hysterical or angry.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Most individuals lack to power to get lot of what they need
without the state like roads, trade policies, and police. Also most are not expert in the more technical products they may buy and need regulation to protect them for example health care (most never took a single course in medicine and if they did do not have the power to get most of information they need like tests of drugs) other such things are buildings (they need building inspectors and codes).

Business owners would like to be king in realm and just like to make regulations after they see something killed some of their best workers.

The politicians are not judged harshly enough for failed regulation or ones that needlessly costly. When was last time you saw a politician kicked out of office because an engineering disaster on their watch caused by dumb or corrupt regulators or regulations.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Let’s not mix up the great thinkers of the past with the practical evolution of modern governance. At the time of Locke, Smith, Hayek and to some degree, Marx, the idea of “the will of the people” was still nascent. So a plausible theory was as powerful as historical practice. But today we have a great deal more experience with self government and those who are guided by idealistic theory often fail to account for the data we have gathered and the norms we have come to expect. So I challenge you, dear reader, to paint us all a picture of smaller government with fewer financial, environmental, and social regulations. What will the world be like in twenty years when the dominance of the corporation has risen and replaced the manager of the commons and our shared infrastructure. What will the world be like when only the rich have good roads and schools and drinking water? Who will the police and the military protect?

American exceptionalism shall lead us down a similar path as those great societies that rose to build Parthenon and the Taj Mahal past, but failed to evolve. Idealism blinds us to the conditions that exist in the present and relies on the past to construct our future.

As with the Greece of today, bigger government is not the answer. But look to China’s increasing power and try to tell me that big government cannot manage an economy. It’s a bit more complicated than a simple but plausible theory with a history of thought behind it, but without facts to support it or evidence to prove it. So I’m sorry. I’m not convinced that smaller government is the answer.

Posted by LEEDAP | Report as abusive

I had a friend who wanted to operate his own small business; several simple hot dog carts. He finally gave up his dream when he ran into the overwhelming amount of asinine rules and regulations and fees and whatnot. Our government, both federal and local, does everything it possibly can to kill small business.

Posted by sjtom | Report as abusive


The reasons I AM convinced that smaller government is the answer are these:

1. It is easier to increase efficiency and effectiveness in any organization, including “government, comprised of less people.

2. The cost of maintaining any organization, including “government, is less when there are less people whose salaries and related expenses must be paid by taxation.

3. The “vested interests” of “big government”, whose salaries and related expenses are extracted by coercion from citizens, are inherently at odds with the best interests of those “governed”. Thus the saying: “I wouldn’t mind paying taxes so much if the money went to a FRIENDLY government”. ;

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Somehow this got cut off from the preceding:

4. The obvious conclusion is that yes, government is the administrative necessary by which the “needs” of “We, the people” are met. Unfortunately, until and unless there is meaningful dialog, debate, and ultimately consensus among “we, the people” as to those NEEDS our productivity can sustain equitably over time, there can be no limit to the size of our government and no limit to the taxes that will be extracted to support it.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive