Big Government Creates Political Polarization

We’ve heard it said that politics is more polarized today than in the past. If that’s true (and I’m not sure it is), big government is likely to blame. I recently noted that politics creates conflict. Bigger government creates more conflict.

Smaller government tends to focus on activities that meet with widespread agreement. Most people would agree that it is a good thing for government to protect the rights of its citizens. They want police to protect them from potential harm from others, they want a military to protect them from foreign threats, and they want courts to settle disputes peacefully. Politics is less polarized because most people agree government should do what it is doing.

When government expands its mission beyond generally agreed-upon activities, politics becomes more polarized. Should government be providing people with health care? If so, how? Should government be subsidizing business, or agriculture?

Even in the core functions of government, expanded missions lead to more polarization. When police expand their mission beyond protecting people’s rights to fighting a war on drugs–which is really a war on drug sellers and drug users–police shift from being the protector of citizens to their enemy. There was widespread agreement for the military buildup during the Cold War to counter the hostile Soviet Union, but less agreement on nation-building foreign affairs in countries that pose no threat to us. People like government infrastructure like water and sewer systems, but are not in as much agreement about government buying land for conservation or telling private property owners they cannot use their land because it might be home to some endangered species.

Big government creates political polarization because government expands beyond activities that meet with general agreement into activities that set the interests of some citizens against the interests of others.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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