That government is best which governs least. ~ Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience. (See the history of this quotation in Quote/Counterquote.)

That government is good which governs substantially less than the one we have now. ~ Realistic alternative for the twenty-first century.

Have you watched an Elizabeth Warren video? I admire her energy. She uses phrases like, “We have to get cracking.” She probably doesn’t use exactly those words, but that’s the feeling you get. We have problems to solve and she wants to solve them. Now.

The problem is that she believes in good government. That is, she believes that when government acts, it accomplishes good things. Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi think the same way. Have a problem? Let’s solve it the public way. They like that motto of public service, “Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

For people who oppose Warren, Obama, Pelosi and a passel of other progressives, the idea that government accomplishes good things is demonstrably false. It also runs against the traditional American idea that government is a necessary evil, not a positive good. A necessary evil has bad consequences, which people must tolerate because the alternative – in this case, no government at all – would be worse. A foundational principle of governance is that public instruments and institutions are intended to prevent bad consequences of lawlessness. To use these same tools to accomplish other purposes – to solve problems for people – invites their misuse.

Analysts often criticize conservatives because conservatives believe government itself is bad. How can you expect government to work, critics say, if you elect people who believe government itself is the problem? You have to populate government with people who believe government can accomplish good things. Otherwise, critics continue, we will see more government dysfunction, malfunction, and gridlock.

That’s an interesting explanation of why our government doesn’t work well. Another explanation is that you can’t take tools designed for one purpose and use them to accomplish some other purpose. We’ve seen this type of argument many times in foreign policy debates. You can’t take armed forces designed to keep our country secure, and use them to build states abroad. Armed forces aren’t trained or organized for the latter task. We never see good outcomes when we do try to use our armed forces to build and secure states abroad. Instead we see failure, one after another.

Why should we expect different results in our domestic policy? Our Constitution specifies a government strictly limited to the preventive functions mentioned above. Moreover, our Declaration of Independence says that when government exceeds its authority, it must be replaced. The Constitution in particular does not contain tools or precedents that authorize government to solve problems or accomplish purposes beyond those spelled out in the Constitution. Nor does this founding document create institutions intended to accomplish tasks beyond those stipulated. In fact, it says exactly the opposite to future officials of the federal government: anything not mentioned here, you are not authorized to do.

Yet critics blame small-government advocates for the current inability of public institutions to accomplish good things! They say that if advocates would only believe in government’s ability to solve problems, rather than faulting it for causing problems, government could once again become a force for good. Their frustration with the current anti-government mood is palpable.

To take a simple example, suppose you have legal mechanisms in place to prevent fraud in the drawing of business contracts. Fraud is a type of lawlessness; government exists to prevent that. Now suppose you use those legal mechanisms to regulate legal, non-fraudulent business relationships. In the latter effort, goverment uses its authority to address some problem not under its purview. Its tools don’t work, and unsurprisingly the attempt has a bad outcome. When government tries to do more than prevent lawlessness, the record shows that the net consequences are bad: the costs exceed the benefits. The costs nearly exceed the benefits even when it adheres to its principal or core functions.

That is why it is called a necessary evil. On the ladder of human benefits, only two rungs fall below minimal government: (1) activist government, and (2) no government at all. That puts the limited, minimal government in our Constitution at the top of the ladder. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of the two alternatives oppresses citizens more egregiously: anarchy or the powerful, monstrous government we see growing right before us.

When you see an energetic progressive claim we should rally together so government can help us, ask for some evidence. Ask for an example. The advocate for government activism may cite the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010 under Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. There you have your evidence of the putative good government accomplishes when people work together. There you have your evidence of monstrosity.