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Small Government is a Conservative Value – Except When It’s Not

By Isaac Saidel-Goley*

Support for small, decentralized government with increased local control is often described as a fundamental principle of conservative ideology and a primary talking point for conservative politicians. Conservative politicians and pundits often use this rhetoric as a strategy to attack progressive candidates and policy by portraying them as overbearing or even pseudo-dictatorial. Yes, big, centralized government is seen as the antithesis of conservative values—except when it’s not. That is to say, except when big government is needed to enforce conservative policies, which is actually quite often.

The focus on individual rights and small government takes a backseat in conservative dialogue when it comes to reproductive rights. In a landmark decision, Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court held that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees an individual’s right to choose to have an abortion (reaffirmed with limitations in Planned Parenthood v. Casey). This ruling is fundamentally consistent with small-government ideology, as it prohibits the government (state or federal) from interfering with personal medical decisions. Yet the conservative community has overwhelmingly condemned this decision and has backed numerous, increasingly radical, state laws in efforts to decrease access to abortion, many of which courts have struck down as unconstitutional.

The desire to perpetuate conservative policies also outweighs the ideological commitment to small government when it comes to marriage. In another landmark decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court held that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantee a right to same-sex marriage. This ruling is also fundamentally consistent with small-government ideology, as it prohibits the government (state or federal) from interfering with personal marital decisions, a fundamental individual liberty. Yet the conservative community, with the notable inclusion of every Republican presidential hopeful at the time of the Obergefell ruling, has largely condemned the decision. Although some conservatives have attempted to portray Obergefell as an example of big-government tyranny, the truth is that big, centralized government is the “conservative” strategy when it comes to the definition and regulation of marriage.

Another policy area revealing this contradiction is firearm regulation. In District of Columbia v Heller, the Supreme Court held, for the first time, that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to possess a firearm. This decision has been widely criticized by legal scholars as patently inconsistent with the history, purpose, and intended interpretation of the Second Amendment. Nonetheless, Heller is currently the law of the land. And yet it protects an individual right far narrower than many believe it to protect. To his credit, Justice Scalia was careful to note that the right is limited and subject to governmental regulation. Democratic states like Massachusetts, New York, and California have enacted numerous firearm regulations, which have been extremely successful in reducing statewide homicide and suicide rates. While Republican sates have universally fought more stringent gun reform, local governments in Republican states have taken matters into their own hands by passing local ordinances regulating firearms. This is precisely the type of small, localized government so often praised as the solution to the “evils” of big, centralized government. But this attitude changed dramatically when local governments decided to regulate guns, and the response was a resounding ban on local firearm regulation. Indeed, every single Republican-majority state has passed broad preemption laws prohibiting local governments from regulating firearms or ammunition. So much for small, localized government.

Finally, perhaps most notably, big government is never seen as a problem when it comes to the military. The United States spends more on the military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, India, and Germany combined. Despite this unprecedented amount of military spending, conservative policymakers invariably call for ever-increasing government spending on the military.

So let’s stop pretending that small, decentralized government is a central tenet of modern conservatism. The truth is that small government is only selectively touted as a conservative value, and is invariably tossed aside at the first sign of trouble.

* Isaac Saidel-Goley is a 2L attending Harvard Law School.



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