“Small government” is a centerpiece of the Republican Party platform. It even has its own special page on the GOP website, under the heading “Reforming Government.” Watch any Republican campaign ad, or read any opinion piece about what Republicans must do to win office, and you’ll hear about “small government” again and again. It’s not just a catchphrase, either; it’s what makes a Republican a Republican (which is why Ted Cruz kept hitting Donald Trump over the head with the concept).
Lately, though, it seems like “small government” doesn’t mean “small” after all. Not when “small government” Republicans are launching bills that restrict access to bathrooms for transgender and gender-nonconforming people, or even banning transgender people from public bathrooms altogether.
Some conservatives, some of whom no doubt believe we have far too many laws already, are introducing new -- and pointless -- legislation aimed squarely at transgender people. When it comes to matters of sexuality or gender identity, it seems that principles are losing out to pandering.
Conservative thinkers have long debated the definition of “small government.” John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and a former speechwriter for Presidents Reagan and H. W. Bush, says that the concept of “small government” -- really “limited,” in his words -- is based on the idea that government gets its legitimacy from individual freedoms. Basically, governments have to limit individual freedom to some extent for society to work (i.e., you have to pay taxes, you can’t burn down someone else’s house, and you can’t go around murdering people for fun), but this should be done carefully, and with the assumption that individual freedoms still matter most.
Charles C. W. Cooke, a writer at the conservative National Review, adds, “[Small government] means dispensing with the idea that government must act all the time, and that when it declines to do so it is ‘broken’ or ‘gridlocked’ ... It means that the state must be taught that it does not exist to protect us from ourselves or to reorder society according to its preferences.”
In short, the government shouldn’t be able to tell individuals -- and, to some extent, businesses -- what to do or who to be. If you want to hold Satanic dance parties in a public park, or homeschool your kids to believe that Jesus will return in the form of an elderly house cat, the government shouldn’t be able to stop you. And if you were a strong “small government” conservative, you might believe that the government shouldn’t force a baker to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding if they don’t want to.
Why, then, are so many state governments chock-full of “small-government Republicans” usurping local city councils’ ability to enforce nondiscrimination legislation, or banning transgender people from public restrooms on the basis of a nonexistent threat? If the government can’t tell you what to do, why should the government tell transgender people where they can (or can’t) pee?
One answer: A lot of people who support “small government” principles in theory aren’t necessarily supportive in practice, especially when it has to do with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender people. “Small government” voters who believed that legislation designed to prevent hate crimes would curtail their rights seem much less concerned about legislation in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama that actually would curtail the rights of others -- as long as those “others” are LGBT.
Why? “Conservative politicians talk a good game about ‘small government’ and ‘individual liberty’ when it suits them,” Nick Gillespie, an editor at Reason (and the former editor-in-chief of the libertarian magazine) says, “but they are simply weirded out by lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and especially trans or gender-fluid people. Whether that's theological or psychological in nature, I don't know and I don't really care. It's just sad, as far as I'm concerned, and they can go fuck themselves.” He added that conservatives and libertarians are both supportive of “small government,” but are divided on issues relating to sexuality and gender. “I don't know any libertarians who are troubled by wide arrays of sexual behavior, orientation, or expression, as long as it's consensual and among adults. Conservatives definitely don't think that way.”
Republicans have argued in favor of “small government” for decades. Gillespie adds that America’s most popular recent Republican, Ronald Reagan, was supportive of “small government” (as illustrated by one of his famous quotes, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”). Problem is, Republicans may like the way that “small government” sounds, but, in Gillespie’s view, they have no interest in actually implementing it.
Truth is, regardless of whether it’s part of your party’s platform, it’s hard to let people do what they want when they’re not doing what you want. Even when it’s just going to the damn bathroom.