Thinking Deeply About Government’s Purpose, Not Just Its Size

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, who is also editor of National Affairs, was interviewed by ConservativeHome’s Ryan Streeter. Yuval’s insights are typically wise and learned. I was particularly interested in his response to the question “If you could wave a wand and change one thing about the GOP, what would it be?” According to Yuval:

I would make it so that every time we are tempted to talk about the size of government we talk also (and more so) about the purpose of government. This would make us more focused on policy particulars than on vague abstractions, better able to offer an alternative to the left’s agenda rather than just slowing the pace of its implementation, and better able to speak to the aspirations of the larger public.

This counsel is extremely wise. It is not as if the size of government is irrelevant; far from it. There are important fiscal and moral ramifications created by a “nanny state.” But to focus solely on the size of government rather than on its core purposes is a mistake, both philosophically and politically. God willed the state, as Edmund Burke put it; but what does He want the state to achieve? This is hardly a new question, but it is one that every serious student of politics needs to engage.

As a practical matter, take the issue of order. “Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention,” John Jay wrote in Federalist Paper No. 3, “that of providing for their safety seems to be the first.” The “tranquility of order” (the phrase comes from Augustine) is the first responsibility of government; without it, we can hardly expect things like justice, prosperity, or virtue to flourish. Order, in turn, cannot be achieved without government — and among the threats to domestic order, crime surely ranks high.