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It has been suggested that this article be merged with Limited government. (Discuss) Proposed since September 2021.

A small government is a principle invoked by New Right conservatives and libertarians to describe an economic and political system where there is minimal government involvement in certain areas of public policy or the private sector, especially matters considered to be private or personal. It is a topic in classical liberalism and some schools of conservatism and libertarianism.[1][failed verification]

Originating from classical liberal thought during the Enlightenment,[2][failed verification] it has been a concept in conservative parties of countries and regions such as Australia, Denmark, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. However, what specific policies should be adopted to advance the objective of making government smaller and how they are to be applied is subject to considerable debate.[citation needed]

Government size vs. function

While implying the size or budget of a government, the term "small government" in political philosophy refers to the framework of principles underlying a government’s limited role or functions.

Lexico defines small government as:

An approach to government which seeks to minimize the role of the State, especially in providing services and regulating the private sector; government based on these principles.[3]

The distinction between size and function—and the principles being followed—is essential, as even a government adhering to a limited role and providing minimal services or regulations may need to increase in operational scale during wartime. Conversely, a physically small and otherwise limited government, such as in the U.S. Antebellum South, might egregiously violate individual rights by embracing and enforcing slavery.[4][5]

The Center for Small Government describes small government as one that:

…is strictly limited to defending our lives, liberty, and property; that honors individual rights; that stays out of unnecessary wars; and that is contained and transparent enough to easily find and root out government waste, dysfunction, and injustice.[6]


In Australian politics, Aaron Martin has described the Labor Party as the party of big government while the Liberal Party as the party of small government.[7] Tim Colebatch described Australia as "one of the three smallest governments in the Western world" and highlighted that, of the 34 advanced economies, Australia's revenue is the ninth-lowest and spending the seventh-lowest.[8]


In 1993, the future Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote the book From Social State to Minimal State (Danish: Fra socialstat til minimalstat) in which he advocated an extensive reform of the Danish welfare system along classical liberal lines. In particular, he favored lower taxes and less government interference in corporate and individual matters. However, Rasmussen has since repudiated many of the views expressed in the book[9] by moving in government towards the centre right and adopting environmentalism.[10]

Hong Kong

Hong Kong has followed small government, laissez-faire policies for decades by limiting government intervention in business. Milton Friedman described Hong Kong as a laissez-faire region and credited that policy for the rapid move from poverty to prosperity in 50 years.[11][failed verification] However, some argue that since Hong Kong was a British colony and that Britain was not a free market, Hong Kong's success was not caused by laissez-faire policies.[12]

A 1994 World Bank Group report stated that Hong Kong's GDP per capita grew in real terms at an annual rate of 6.5% from 1965 to 1989, a consistent growth percentage over a span of almost 25 years.[13] By 1990, Hong Kong's per capita income officially surpassed that of the ruling United Kingdom.[14][full citation needed]

Since 1995, Hong Kong has been ranked as having the world's most liberal capital markets by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal.[15] The Fraser Institute concurred in 2007.[16]

New Zealand

After financial reforms beginning in 1984, with first Rogernomics and later Ruthanasia, successive governments transformed New Zealand from a highly-regulated economy to a liberalized free market economy.[17] The New Zealand government sold its telecommunications company, railway network, a number of radio stations and two financial institutions.[18] The reforms were initially implemented by the Labour Party, which has since reverted to its social democratic and interventionist outlook, and the centre-right New Zealand National Party has taken up the cause of small government and continues to promote private enterprise, low taxation, reduced spending on social welfare and overall limited state interference.[citation needed] As a result, small government is associated with conservatism in contemporary New Zealand politics.[citation needed]

United Kingdom

The idea of small government was heavily promoted in the United Kingdom by the Conservative government under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. There are differing views on the extent to which it was achieved. It allowed the stock markets and industries to compete more heavily with each other and made British goods more valued in world trade.[citation needed]

An important part of the Margaret Thatcher government's policy was privatisation, which was intended to reduce the role of the state in the economy and allow industries to act without government interference. Supporters blamed excessive government intervention for much of Britain's economic woes during the late 1960s and 1970s.[citation needed]

Opponents argue that privatisation harms social programs for the poor. This argument is particularly heard in connection with the railways and the National Health Service (NHS). Small government supporters, such as the British author and journalist James Bartholomew, point out that although record amounts of funding have gone into social security, public education, council housing and the NHS, it has been detrimental to the people it was intended to help and does not represent value for investment.[19][full citation needed]

In the 20th century, small government was generally associated with the Conservative Party and big government with the Labour Party.[citation needed]

In addition to opposing government intervention in the economy, advocates of small government oppose government intervention in people's personal lives. The Labour government during the premiership of Tony Blair was criticized on this score, e.g. by giving unwanted advice about eating, drinking and smoking. This has been dubbed as the nanny state.[citation needed]

United States

At the time the nation was founded, there was disagreement between the Federalists who supported a strong federal government; and the Anti-Federalists, who wanted a loose confederation of independent states. In The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay explained why a strong federal government was necessary. Hamilton wrote:

Not to confer in each case a degree of power commensurate to the end would be to violate the most obvious rules of prudence and propriety, and improvidently to trust the great interests of the nation to hands which are disabled from managing them with vigor and success.[20]

President Thomas Jefferson said:

[A] wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.[21][citation needed]

The modern small government movement in the United States is largely a product of Ronald Reagan's presidency from 1981 to 1989. Reagan declared himself a small-government conservative and famously said:

Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.[22]

This has become the unofficial slogan of the Tea Party movement and conservative commentators like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.[23] The Tea Party movement claims the United States used to have a small government and has turned away from that ideal. Generally, members of the Tea Party support the Republican Party and often run against moderate Republicans in the primary elections.

The libertarian-wing of the Republican Party as with the Liberty Caucus which includes politicians such as Ron Paul and his son Rand Paul, is particularly strong in its support of small government. It is contrasted to the neoconservative-wing which favors large defense spending and the Christian right which wants a federal government that would enforce what they see as Christian morality.[citation needed]

A majority of respondents to a 2013 Gallup poll (54%) said the American government is trying to do too much.[24]

See also


  1. ^ Madrick, Jeffrey G. (2009). "1: Government and Change in America". The Case for Big Government. The Public Square. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press (published 2010). p. 10. ISBN 9781400834808. Retrieved 23 September 2018. [...] there really is no example of small government among rich nations. The size of government grew across all the world's rich nations, particularly in the twentieth century, and the rate of economic growth only increased.
  2. ^ "Enlightenment | Definition, History, & Facts". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-02-29.
  3. ^ "Definition of Small Government". Retrieved 12 Oct 2020.
  4. ^ Biddle, Craig (26 June 2012). "Political 'Left' and 'Right' Properly Defined". The Objective Standard. 7 (3).
  5. ^ "Why "Big Government" is Not the Problem - The Objective Standard". 20 February 2013. Retrieved 2021-07-08.
  6. ^ "Mission of the Center for Small Government". Retrieved 15 October 2020.
  7. ^ Martin, A. (2011). "Partisan identification and attitudes to big versus small government in Australia: Evidence from the ISSP". Australian Journal of Political Science. 46 (2): 243–256. doi:10.1080/10361146.2011.567971. S2CID 153435362.
  8. ^ Colebatch, Tim (25 June 2012). "Two new taxes are on the way, but we shouldn't complain". The Age. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
  9. ^ East, Roger; Thomas, Richard (2003). Profiles of People in Power: The World's Government Leaders. London: Routledge. p. 140.
  10. ^ Thompson, Wayne C. (2008). Nordic, Central, and Southeastern Europe. Harpers Ferry: Stryker-Post Publications. p. 72.
  11. ^ Friedman, Milton. "The Hong Kong Experiment" (1998). Archived 8 May 2010 at the Wayback Machine. Hoover Digest. Retrieved 29 March 2007.
  12. ^ "Home - Asia Sentinel". Asia Sentinel.[dead link]
  13. ^ Rowley, C. & Fitzgerald, R. Managed in Hong Kong: Adaptive Systems, Entrepreneurship and Human Resources Routledge, UK, 2000. ISBN 0-7146-5026-9
  14. ^ Yu, Tony Fu-Lai (1997). Entrepreneurship and Economic Development of Hong Kong. United Kingdom: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-16240-8.
  15. ^ "2008 Index of Economic Freedom". The Wall Street Journal. The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved 31 December 2008.[dead link]
  16. ^ "Economic Freedom of the World Report" (2007). Archived 27 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine. Economic Freedom Network. Fraser Institute.
  17. ^ Harris, Max (2017). The New Zealand Project. Bridget Williams Books. pp. 44–49. ISBN 9780947492595. Retrieved 4 July 2017.
  18. ^ Cardow, Andrew; Wilson, William. "Privatisation: The New Zealand Experiment of the 1980s" (PDF). Massey University. Retrieved 4 July 2017.
  19. ^ Bartholomew, James (2013). The Welfare State We're In. Biteback Publishing. ISBN 978-1849544504.
  20. ^ Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, The Federalist Papers, p. 151, Signet Classics, 2003
  21. ^ First Inaugural Address, given at the Capitol Building, Washington, DC, Wednesday, March 4, 1801
  22. ^ "Inaugural Address".
  23. ^ Dreier, Peter. "Don't add Reagan's Face to Mount Rushmore". Archived 10 January 2013 at The Nation. 3 April 2011.
  24. ^ Newport, Frank (17 September 2012). "Majority in U.S. Still Say Government Doing Too Much". Gallup. Retrieved 2 June 2013.