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The Myth of Limited Government

Ronnie Janoff-Bulman—

The call for limited government is a recurring theme in Republican politics. Ronald Reagan’s refrain that government is the problem, not the solution, has taken many rhetorical forms on the right, but the gist remains the same: big government should stay out of our lives and allow individual liberty to thrive. Republicans identify federal entitlement programs, from Social Security and Medicare to unemployment insurance, Medicaid and food stamps, as particular culprits and argue that government should maintain a hands-off policy rather than a “handout” policy. These are programs embraced by Democrats. It has become conventional wisdom that conservatives favor limited government and liberals do not. 

For Democrats these federal programs are ways to provide for the well-being of our national community, particularly the needs of the most vulnerable.  These are government interventions to improve the lives of recipients. Granted this is not limited government. In railing against these programs, Republicans raise questions about deservingness and object to the monetary costs of the policies. They maintain that they advocate limited, non-interventionist government, but are their own policies really limited and non-interventionist?

Despite the conservative freedom chorus, Republican policies belie their rhetoric.  There is nothing “limited” about regulating women’s bodies, interfering with the freedom to choose one’s marital partner, legislating the bathrooms we use, dictating the books we can read or the history we can learn.  These are unmistakable instances of government intervention in our lives and restrictions on our freedoms.  Where is the Republican concern with individual liberty?  When we recognize the intrusiveness of these restrictive conservative policies the hypocrisy of Republicans’ “limited government” mantra becomes all too apparent. 

We should recognize that neither the left nor the right advocates limited government.  Instead both sides want government regulation, but they differ in how and where they want these interventions.  My research in moral psychology identifies two collective moralities that underlie these differences. Reflecting a fundamental distinction in psychology, liberals’ Social Justice morality involves approach, which moves us towards desirable ends, whereas conservatives’ Social Order morality involves avoidance, which moves us away from undesirable ends.  More specifically, Social Justice is focused on providing for the group and is concerned with resource distribution to assure the well-being of members.  There is a strong sense of communal responsibility and interdependence, and a commitment to greater equality across society.  Social Order morality is focused on protecting the group from threats, both internal and external. It requires adherence to strict norms and traditional social roles in an effort to maintain stability and security.   

What is the appropriate place of government in people’s lives? What should we regulate as a society?  Both the left and the right want government involvement, but in different domains. For Democrats, with their Social Justice morality, it is primarily the economic domain, from strong regulation of the market to government spending for healthcare, education, and strong safety nets more generally. For Republicans, with their Social Order morality, it is primarily the social domain, including sexuality and family roles, from abortion and same-sex marriage bans to transgender policies, contraception, and doctor-assisted suicide. Non-traditional roles and behaviors, including same-sex partners and women’s sexual and economic freedom, are perceived as instances of personal gratification that threaten the social order.

How we choose to regulate differs too.  In general the left is enabling, providing resources, and the right is restrictive, with a focus on prohibiting behaviors. These differences echo the activation versus inhibition underpinnings of Social Justice and Social Order respectively—approaching the good and avoiding the bad. There are clearly exceptions, as in Republicans’  support of defense spending and opposition to gun regulations, but these only serve to highlight the right’s protect (versus provide) motive, which is of paramount importance in Social Order morality.  

Both Republicans and Democrats also favor autonomy and individual liberty—and in precisely the opposite domains.  Democrats favor autonomy and freedom in the social domain, believing that people should be free to control their own bodies and pursue personal behaviors and lifestyles of their own choosing.  Republicans favor autonomy and freedom in the economic domain, where they espouse a largely unfettered market, in which they believe people prosper or fail on their own.

Republican voices in favor of limited government are many and loud, but neither Republicans nor Democrats have a lock on support of individual liberty.  Neither side wants government to stay out of our lives either.  For both the left and the right, limited government is a myth.


Ronnie Janoff-Bulman is professor emerita of psychology and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the former editor of the journal Psychological Inquiry. She is the author of Shattered Assumptions: Toward a New Psychology of Trauma. She lives in Amherst, MA.


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