Dogmatism and the Role of Government

In the post below, I used the tax rate debate how one side’s assumption that the other is dogmatic and absolutist leads it to itself take a dogmatic position with absolutist implications.  That’s true of the broader debate over the role of government as well.

Progressives view any opposition to any government initiative they favor as “anti-government.”  Their arguments usually take the form “(the interstate highway system/the Manhattan Project/World War II/child labor laws/desegregation) was good; () was a government action; the policy we are proposing is a government action; therefore, the policy we are proposing is a good idea, QED.”  If this were a valid form of argument, it would imply totalitarianism, a rejection of all limits on government.  Or, one could use the same form with different, true premises, as libertarians often do: “The state killed 100 million of its own people in the twentieth century, therefore the state is evil, QED.” 

Most people aren’t absolutists- they are neither totalitarians nor anarchists.  Yet progressives, at least, frame their arguments in absolutist terms that delegitimizes debate over the role of government.  Right-wingers will do this, too (“Obama is a commuist!”) but this rarely makes it into respectable discourse, whereas the progressive version does.*

Really, the libertarians have the stronger case there.  The autobahn wasn’t worth the Holocaust.  Really, supporters of government action should be the ones arguing that, contrary to anarchists, limited government really is possible.  They should address the question of the morally legitimate role of government.   Anarchists, or Jeffersonians who want the central government to have as little power as possible, easily win the day if the question is one of the costs and benefits of government in the abstract.  The Hamiltonian answer, that we can give government lots of power and still limit the sphere in which it exercises that power, is really the only one that makes any sense.

* In addition to the routine adoption of the flawed form of argument (“the state did something good, therefore, everything the state does is good,”) note that many progressives, including Jonathan Chait, are obsessed with Paul Ryan’s Randian influences, and that Obama considers Paul Ryan’s budget “social Darwinism,” meaning that Ryan wants to let the poor die out so as to strengthen the gene pool.


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