Bumper Sticker Logic

I saw this on a bumper sticker not long ago:

“The Bigger the Government, the Smaller the Citizen.”

I didn’t get a chance to talk to the driver to find out what he thought it meant, but my presumption is that it in line with the conservative idea of limited government. The more limited the government, the more rights for the citizens; and conversely the larger and more pervasive the government, the fewer rights of the citizens. Hence: the bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.

But let’s think about that in the real world. First, let’s think about those countries with little or no government, places like Somalia or Mali. Where there is no government there is not maximum freedom for the citizens, but chaos.

Second, let’s think about those countries that are rich and have high standards of living.  The United Nations has what they call the Human Development Index, which ranks countries according to a number of factors, including life expectancy, education, and wealth as measured by the gross domestic product per capital. (This is published annually in the UN Human Development Report.) [http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/]

The list for 2011 is here. 

The top five countries are Norway, Australia, Netherlands, US, and New Zealand. All of the top countries are nations with modern regulatory governments with strong social welfare programs. If you go to the bottom of the report you will notice that all of the counties at the bottom, which the UN says are nations with “Low Human Development”, are countries with minimal or failing governments, like Afghanistan and Sierra Leone.

But overall wealth and a high standard of living doesn’t necessarily equate to “liberty” and “freedom.” Perhaps the people of Mali are more free than the citizens of Norway.

Of course one argument is that the people of Mali live in endemic poverty, and so even if they are less burdened by the heavy hand of government, they don’t have the financial wherewithal to exercise those freedoms.

So let’s look at the other side, and consider Norway. Norway is a near socialistic state, with universal health care, a strong welfare system, and a high degree of government regulation of the economy. So are the citizens of Norway veritable serfs? Actually they seem pretty free to me. They seem able to do almost anything they want. In fact we in the US might consider their society rather licentious.

In fact, if you look at the countries on the top of the list (which includes the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and most of Europe) you see countries with a relatively high degree of government regulation of the economy, and countries with pretty generous welfare programs. And are the citizens of these wealthy nations serfs? In any real sense they are the freest in the world. They have open cultures and successful liberal democracies. They have strong economies (as compared to the rest of the world, even considering the recent world-wide recession) and their citizens are generally fairly wealthy and have a very good standard of living. As a result they have the financial ability to pursue a wide variety of educational and leisure options. They are what is commonly referred to as free.

So if one was to consider the real world, and not the logic of a bumper sticker, one would conclude that the reality is that the smaller the government, the poorer the citizen. And since poverty can stunt your growth: the smaller the government, the smaller the citizen.

Author: Mike

I am a patent attorney in Lexington, Kentucky. My law firm web site is http://www.coblenzlaw.com. I ran for State Representative in 2010 and lost in the primary. Many of these posts are based on writing that I did for that election. Rather than delete it all, I decided to dump it onto the internet.

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