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big government as a side effect of conservatism/libertarianism

I was reading an interesting article the other day on Subsidiarity, which was an economic theory put forward by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno, that argues that going too far towards either Libertarianism or Socialism leads inevitably to the nanny state. My argument is that our (and England’s) swing towards libertarian/laissez-faire capitalism in the 80s is causing the rise in nanny statism now.

These two philosophies have one thing in common, which is that they largely interpret everything in terms of individuals and the state, ignoring everything else in the equation. Similarly, they both see spheres of responsibility as exclusive (things must be either the individual’s right, or the state’s) rather than mutual.

Since the state doesn’t really have the option of letting society fail at a massive level, exclusivity of responsibility and the fact that all must be done either by individual or state means eventually that the state ends up picking up the pieces when things start to go round.

Libertarianism (here as laissez-faire economics a/k/a the Reagan years) leads to the nanny state because nothing else is available to act as safety net, and once the safety net is seen in such exclusive terms, the costs of running it become evident, and then there is pressure to reduce the costs of running it. This leads to the first part of the nanny state, pervasiveness, because it’s cheaper in the long run to have a society where the costs of running the nanny state are minimized.

The second part of the nanny state, bureaucratic incompetence, is driven largely by (in libertarianism and/or Reagan-style supply-side capitalism) a dislike of the functions of large government. This means both that competent people don’t go into government and also that careful, planned expansion is unlikely, things expand piecemeal in response to particular needs.

This is sort of an endless cycle, because the needs to drive costs down lead to piecemeal expansion of the government and the inefficiency means that large-scale measures to improve things (including saving money over the long term) never happen.

I think the way that socialism leads to the nanny state is more obvious, but I was genuinely surprised by the arguments that libertarianism would. For me, at least, the evidence seems to be there.

[edit: after publication, 'laissez-faire capitalism' was changed to the correct 'supply-side capitalism,' after reader comments. Whoops, teach me to write early in the morning.

It's also been suggested to me that this theory best applies to social programs, and not to overall spending and i did not make that sufficiently clear in the original post.]


  1. Craig J. Bolton wrote:

    That thesis would be a great deal more convincing if any of your premises were true. But they’re not. The United States has been going through manifestations of a Nanny State ever since the Civil War with the high points being the Progressive Era through WWII. Do you imagine that the statutes and regulations enacted during that period and after just went away?

    As for you characterization of the Reagan Presidency as laissez-faire capitalism, you’ve got to be kidding. The only roll back [however modest] of federal regulatory authority occurred under Carter, not Reagan. The administrations of Reagan, and then Bush II saw unprecedented growth in the size of the federal budget, and absolutely no roll back in the intrusiveness of government into either business or the private lives of Americans.

    Get your facts right the next time, rather than relying on these popular myths.

    Sunday, March 9, 2008 at 8:20 pm | Permalink
  2. admin wrote:

    @Craig: Craig, thanks for your remarks. I think, to some extent we’re somewhat in agreement — the spread of the nanny state is inexorable given the thing. Thanks for catching my laissez-faire for supply side mixup.

    I think the point that Subsidiarity makes is that the more you talk about shrinking social programs, the more you end up expanding them, you just end up doing it in a half-assed manner.

    Monday, March 10, 2008 at 1:03 am | Permalink

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