What is "Big Govt"

An extension of "privacy" vs. "autonomy"

"Big Government" is a meaningless phrase

It has no serious meaning in mainstream dialogue beyond pure pejorative. It is the cry of a whining child.

"Big, Bad Government" = Government encroachment on Private Sphere, NOT Government telling you what to do.

For the phrase "Big Government" to have any substantive meaning, it must refer to a government that has encroached into the Private Sphere where it lacks authority, not solely a government "making too many regulations" or "spending too much money" or "making me do things I don't like."

If the public sphere is the realm of shared norms, politics, employment, etc. while the private sphere is the intimate realm of the domestic, the Home, the State should be limited to the Public Sphere. In this sense, we have a substantive and meaningful notion of Private: there are zones, physical regions or particular relationships and/or institutions, that cannot be invaded because they are social goods (think marital bedrooms, as the Supreme Court described in Poe v Ullman and endorsed in Griswold v Connecticut).

This is foundationally distinct from voluntarist notions of privacy, which are nonsense. When the Supreme Court makes claims such as,

"If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision to bear or beget a child"

or argues that the right to privacy protects an individual's "autonomous control" over their self-development and self-expression, or claims that the right to privacy protects "the ability independently to define one's identity," we have reduced Privacy to Autonomy, and made it as meaningless as Autonomy/Freedom/Liberty is in our language. And so when people use the phrase "Big Government" today, their sentiments tend to reduce to "the State is making me do things I don't want to do." This voluntarist concept is of course nonsense.

It is reasonable that there are certain things some people want to do that are wrong (kidnapping and murdering children, for instance). The mere fact that the State is preventing you from doing something you want to do is not enough to demonstrate "oppression." You must first prove that what you want to do is justified. Only when we have demonstrated that a State is preventing you from doing something that is justified can we declare the State to be oppressive.

What makes a Government "Big" in a genuinely bad sense is that it intrudes on the zones of rightful privacy of individuals (i.e. NOT their decisions), not that it picks a moral vision to implement (and therefore acts to endorse and prohibit). It always picks a moral vision to implement. What must be preserved is the sanctity of the Private Sphere. The Private Sphere, as I have defined above, is a place where the government usually does not have authority to intervene (of course, murder does not become legal so long as you do it in your bedroom - these rights are never absolute).

Dread it. Run from it. Sovereignty still arrives. (or, why sovereignty is inescapable)

The State should not (perhaps, can not) be opposed on principle. The question must be whether or not some particular State (or the particular moral vision the State is implementing, or some particular act by the State, or some particular State ruler) is good. In some sense, "sovereignty" has existed at every point in human history and will continue to do so. There has always been, and always will be, some entity that has ultimate decision making power in any given instance due to material power or formal power/authority/deference. The presence of sovereignty is as inescapable as that of gravity. And none of us can fly. Rather than railing against it, we must focus on establishing the guidelines and frameworks for good governance. And good governance demands that the interests of the people and the interests of the rulers are aligned. Perverse incentive structures must be replaced with synergistic ones.

Furthermore, the Sovereign always sets the rules, including for property norms. The idea that capitalism or markets or any system escapes this reality is nonsense. The Sovereign sets the rules, and justifies them either ethically or through a pure imposition of material power:

“The relation between property and sovereignty is contested. The protection of both persons and property are two core government functions. These functions come into conflict when the exercise of a property right harms others. How do we determine when that exercise is legitimately viewed as a self-regarding act that does not affect others, and when such an exercise does harm others and thus comes within the legitimate sphere of government regulation? Property norms help answer this question by orienting us in a moral universe through background understandings that define legitimate interests. Norms orient us, first, by telling us who is an owner with regard to any particular entitlement in a resource, and second, by telling owners when they are obligated to take into account the effects of their actions on others. In so doing, property norms define which externalities we must pay attention to and seek (if possible) to prevent.”

(from “How property norms construct the externalities of ownership” by Joseph Singer)

Finally, the Sovereign is never "uninvolved" or "neutral." In fact, this is metaphysically impossible.

There is no neutrality. The State is always enforcing one set of norms or another. You may not see this enforcement/coercion because your interests/values/morals are aligned with the State's, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Simply that it is invisible to you. The reality is that coercion is omnipresent. When you say a country is "free," what you are really saying is that the country throws the right people in prison for the right reasons. Everything comes down to what is "right." And “autonomy”/”freedom” (and the degenerated versions of “privacy” that reduce to them) provide no answer to this.


I hope you all enjoyed. This is a somewhat different format than usual as I’m just trialing some things. If you have any suggestions or critiques, please leave a comment.

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As the weather gets nicer (in my part of the world at least), I hope you all are able to enjoy the weekend.

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