The “BIG” problem isn’t just hugely important, it’s also the incredible set of challenges that are created when any institution, organization, or endeavor is just plain too big.
This problem is predictable, and therefore solvable, but only if the right people are keeping an eye on the right things.
Specifically, our modern government is too big. Period.
Until this problem is remedied, we will continue to see crisis after crisis after crisis, each followed by infighting, gridlock, dysfunction, and major mistakes from Washington and both parties.
As long as the government tries to do too much on too big a scale, it will continue to do many things poorly.
In fact, our government reached this turning point (too big to be efficient) in the late 1960s. As Micklethwait and Woolridge put it in Foreign Affairs:
“By the 1970s, the U.S. government seemed to be spoiling everything it touched…”
And the size and scope of its endeavors have more than quadrupled since.
This has created two overarching crises that never seem to dissipate. In fact, they’ll continue to fester and grow as long as the government grows.
First, a government too big to be effective or efficient tends to infectiously weaken the effectiveness and efficiency of everything it touches — and at the same time it habitually tries to touch more and more.
This dull, inevitable march to control more parts of life and the economy (and inadvertently make them all less effective) has killed every great world power in history.
Its occurrence in the United States is now the defining characteristic of our century — for the whole globe.
Second, the bigger the government gets once reaching this point of inefficiency, the less it fulfills its primary mission.
For the framers, the role of what they called the “general government” (meaning the federal government, what we now usually call the “national government” or even, tellingly, “the government”), was national security and the protection of freedom.
The framers saw no other role for Washington.
It’s raison de etre was to protect inalienable rights and defend the nation. Nothing else.
In fact, the Constitution was designed specifically to ensure that it did nothing else.
Worried that they hadn’t quite made this certain, the founding generation then added the Bill of Rights to make absolutely sure that the federal government only did these two things.
Then, just in case they hadn’t made it clear enough, they added the Ninth Amendment to the Bill of Rights.
But even then they worried that they hadn’t done enough to limit the federal government. So they added the Tenth Amendment as well:
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
“We want the federal government to protect inalienable rights and maintain national security, and do nothing else!” they tried to say (the Constitution).
Then, “And we mean it (the Bill of Rights). We really mean it (the Ninth Amendment). Seriously, we truly, totally, emphatically, mean it! (the Tenth Amendment).”
Richard A. Epstein wrote:
“…the two central concerns of constitutional law [are] institutional structure and individual rights.”
The purpose of institutional structure is to secure individual rights, not vice versa.
The People or the Government?
But when the focus of government becomes too big, well beyond the Constitutional powers of protecting rights and maintaining the national defense, the individual rights of the people become a resource to be bargained, traded or sacrificed in the name of institutional structure.
“Think not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do with or without your consent for itself,” becomes the operating principle.
The people, the individuals, are forgotten in this new arrangement. They become a cypher, expendable, unimportant. Not citizens but voters.
Not a nation of, by, and for the people, but now people for, by, and of the nation (meaning whatever Washington says).
In other words, an aristocracy, where elites run the nation and control the people who live in it.
This isn’t the founding model of Americanism at all. It’s the opposite. It’s top-down government, not Jefferson’s bottom-up democracy.
As such, it is fundamentally authoritarian, not a self-governing republic. This has created two natural results: national decline as the world’s sole superpower, and the decline of individual freedoms.
Both declines will continue as long as the “BIG” problem (the government is too big) persists.
But what can be done, realistically? The federal government can be held to its Constitutional boundaries. It can be limited to national defense and the protection of the inalienable rights of its citizens.
This is why the government was created in the first place, and when it tries to do anything else beyond these two roles it is both unconstitutional and also destructive to freedom, prosperity, and happiness.
The people still have the power to remedy this, in every election — IF they’ll vote wisely.
Note that nearly all nations in both the free and the authoritarian world are facing the “BIG” Problem.
Following America’s lead, or in some cases simply striking out on their own, modern governments are drastically expanding — not sticking to their wise or constitutional limits.
For example, the debt of governments around the world reached $50.6 trillion in 2013, compared with just $22 trillion in 2003.
At this rate, the fall of individual freedoms to the “BIG” Problem is all but ensured.
This trajectory isn’t surprising in the authoritarian nations, where elites openly rule the masses.
But in the free nations, it is a relatively new development, one that began in the United States with the advent of the GI Bill after World War II.
Before this time, education generally emphasized the classics and the great skills of deep reading (e.g. The Federalist), writing and thinking.
When the government began massively funding higher education, schools changed their emphasis to job and career training, and subsequent generations of Americans stopped learning to read.
Of course, they gained literacy, but as a nation we lost our high level of what I’ve called Leadership Education and what E.D. Hirsch called Cultural Literacy — a deep understanding of the same things our leaders read and think about.
In fact, before 1945, the primary focus of American education was for each child, youth and citizen to read the same books and think about the same ideas and questions as their Presidents, Senators, Judges, and leading CEOs.
Allan Bloom called this momentous shift away from cultural literacy “the closing of the American mind,” and he warned that unless we reversed this trend democracy was doomed.
We didn’t reverse it, and as a result, as mentioned above, “By the 1970s, the U.S. government seemed to be spoiling everything it touched…”
In the 2010s, the dearth of leadership education is a wholesale national crisis. Very few people know how to really read the fine print of government any more. In such situations, rule by elites is the only historical norm.
If we are merely voters rather than engaged citizens, we vote poorly. We are swayed by media, photogenicism, and campaign popularity contests.
We ignore the fact that candidates lie, or more accurately that once in office they routinely fail to live up to their campaign promises.
We become a nation of children, led around by our elite handlers, rather than a nation of adults who closely scan government actions and keep our politicians and their policies on a tight leash.
Again, the fundamental problem is that we aren’t in the habit of reading or thinking like leaders.
For example, consider the following commentary from a contemporary source:
“‘Freedom of speech’ in ‘freedom of speech, or of the press’ means the freedom of all to speak; this suggests that ‘freedom…of the press’ in the same phrase means the freedom of all to use the press. Reading ‘freedom’ to mean ‘freedom of every person to engage in an activity’ when ‘freedom’ relates to ‘speech,’ but reading the same word in the same place as meaning ‘the freedom of some particular group of people’ when it relates to ‘the press’ is not how users of the English language use these kinds of closely connected clauses…”
Most moderns don’t enjoy reading such paragraphs. They wonder what it is about, why it matters, and why they should read it at all. They have to dig to ascertain it’s meaning, and even then they feel a bit unsure. They consider it the kind of reading to be done by experts, not every citizen.
Yet this is the argument a Supreme Court Justice used to make the case that everyone has the right to share their opinions openly — against some who argued that the only ones with this right are actually professional reporters and journalists.
This is a huge deal, with massive consequences to our freedom. Yet almost the only people who read such paragraphs are experts.
In the founder’s time, the regular citizens read such ideas and discussed them at length. In our day, we don’t.
Then, when we go to the ballot box, we vote very differently than the founders or any other people who actually closely study and understand the fine print.
No nation keeps its freedoms when the regular people don’t read, think, and spend time analyzing the same things as their political officials. Every nation that leaves political details to the experts loses its freedom to a professional expert governing class. There are no exceptions in history.
Yet today we are two nations: the masses, who focus on their careers (from kindergarten through retirement) and entertainments, and the elites who read the fine print and understand it — and use the education of their children to pass on these same skills and interests.
This is aristocracy, pure and simple. Freedom and democracy cannot last in such a climate.
One more example, though there are thousands that could be used:
“…today we have about 5,000 federal criminal statutes on the books, most added in the last few decades [since the shift of the 1970s]. And the spigot keeps pouring, with hundreds of new statutory crimes inked every few years. Neither does that begin to count the thousands of additional regulatory crimes buried in the federal register. There are so many crimes cowled in the numbing fine print of those pages that scholars actually debate their number.”
This is the “BIG” Problem in a nutshell. If people don’t know the law, how can they obey the law? If government becomes so big that only the experts know the law, we are living in an aristocracy.
But when government becomes so big that even the experts don’t know the law, the nation itself is in danger.
Everything the government touches weakens, and the government tries to touch everything. This is today’s America.
The answer is to teach the current generation of youth how to read. Really read, in the Allan Bloom, culturally literate, Leadership Education way of reading.
Such reading empowers the regular people to think about the same ideas the experts, government officials, and top leaders are thinking about. This creates a nation that is capable of a democratic republic, and of freedom.
No other education allows a citizenry to remain free.
This starts by teaching young people (and adults, where needed) to read the classics. Then to read the scholarly journals and other deep writings of experts and government officials.
Without this skill, and this habit, freedom is always lost.
Ironically, most people reject this solution because it takes too long, and can compete with their kids’ career training.
This is exactly the short-term viewpoint that is trained into the masses by conveyor-belt schooling.
The elites, in contrast, make this a major priority. They ensure that their youth have a leadership education above all else. They know this is the key to their future power. Elite private schools train leadership through the classics.
People who don’t read the classics, the scholarly journals and writings, and important government documents, are part of the masses. Those who do are part of the ruling elites.
The goal is to get the majority of citizens reading these things. Only then are the people the rulers, and only then is a nation free.
The “BIG” Problem can only be solved the LITTLE Solution: you reading the classics, journals and other deep writings, and government documents — a little each day.
If you don’t do this, you will witness less freedom and the major decline of your nation, and even less freedom for your children and grandchildren.
Oliver DeMille is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling co-author of LeaderShift: A Call for Americans to Finally Stand Up and Lead, the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd.
Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.