A friend of mine recently confessed that as a conservative, it was “hard to be against big government when you’re living in a big government country where said big government actually works really well.” Indeed, it is hard to fight against something that functions smoothly and provides you with the things you need. Imagine refusing to get into a car with a full tank of gas and a well running engine that would take you where you needed to go just because you had to pay someone else to drive it. Not only would you have to forget using Über, you would have to forget using cabs, buses, trains, planes, etc.
Now, a typical conservative response to this might be that those things should be “privatized,” that is given into the control of non-governmental individuals or groups so that through competition, the market will naturally come up with the most efficient way of providing these services. Perhaps this is true, but as I mentioned in a previous post, our distinction between “public” and “private” is a bit strange (Andrew Strain at First Things goes further into how “private” corporations are in fact not so “private.”)
Alasdair McIntyre, in a recent talk given at Notre Dame, made the distinction between “individual goods” “public goods” and “common goods.” The first is a good that belongs to an individual; a good that only he can use or participate in (e.g. a delicious meal). A “public” good is a good that is shared by individuals but is still experienced by each as an individual good (e.g. a bus ride into work). A common good is one which belongs to a group in common, not just in terms of individual experience. This last category is perhaps a little hard to pin down not least because it is often confused with public goods (as McIntyre explains, public goods are often needed for common goods, which is where the confusion arises). However, simply put, the common good of any given group is its end or purpose, which is an ordered (and thus happy) common life. Although each individual in a group benefits from this ordered life, the ordering itself is something that transcends the individuals and is concerned also with relationship within the group.
Now, the ordering of a given country (its purpose) is through some form of government since the common good is concerned with relationship of individuals to the whole and not just individual goods. If the purpose of a country was just to ensure that all individual needs were met, perhaps no government would be needed. An anarchic social-contract theory of society might suffice. This is not the traditional Catholic view of society, however, and if Catholics are to claim any conservatism, it should be first and foremost a conservatism of Catholic teaching, not any given political movement.
My friend mentioned above, however, is referring to being politically an American conservative, which means being against the intervention of the government into the lives of the citizens. Now, it may be true that a national government should not be directly concerned with making sure every person has a toothbrush (an individual good) but it is certainly in the interest of the common good to maintain certain public goods (which as described above, are in fact shared individual goods). Thus, if we are to live a well-ordered life in a community, we should support public goods by sharing our resources so that everyone is able to share in the common life of the community.
Does this have to happen through government? According to the libertarian Prince of Liechtenstein, Hans-Adam II, no:
The state has to become a service company which competes peacefully, and not a monopoly which gives the customer only the alternative either to accept a bad service at the highest price, or to emigrate.
However, in Liechtenstein, the government is a de facto monopoly because it is able to provide these services well and thus there is no demand for other parties to provide public service. According to Andreas Kohl Martinez at Jacobite Magazine, Liechtenstein is a libertarian paradise: Perfect freedom to opt out of state-run public service through local democracies. It is, however, the case that what “works” is big government, albeit of a tiny nation. Even in a supposedly libertarian scheme, big government isn’t bad per se.
Now, there are issues with how this is framed (because it is dependent on social-contract theory and not a conception of the common good) but it does show that public goods are judged by “what works” and not by the procedure used to attain them. Of course there are procedures that contradict the common good, and modern governments are often terrible at judging true public goods as well. Just because a government is able to provide some service efficiently does not mean that that service is a good thing. In fact, my friend’s nation is well known for corruption and perhaps big government in that country is a bad thing. But it is not bad simply because it provides public services (libertarians commonly decry government services on principle) and through some miracle, the corruption doesn’t seem to have ruined public services. In other words, big government can work.
There is a further argument (from Aristotle and Aquinas) to be made that public goods belong properly to public authority and not to private enterprise. In this view, it is not about “what works” but how to ensure that government does in fact work. But let it suffice for now to say that big government is not just a “liberal” value, but can and should be embraced by conservatives.