Do you want a big rock or a small rock?

Do you want a big rock or a small rock? You have to pick one or the other. A huge, heavy, substantial, unbreakable hunk of granite? Or a tiny, buoyant, crumbly piece of pumice?

Which one do you want?

I’m assuming you know what the rock is for. The question would be silly — utterly stupid and pointless — unless we all already agreed on what the rock is for. No point in asking about the proper size or weight of the rock unless we know that — unless we all share a comprehensive, proper and correct understanding of the purpose of said rock.

After all, that’s what determines the appropriate size, shape and weight of the thing, right? You wouldn’t want to be picking out a good flagstone only to find out later that what you really needed was a slingstone. If the rock is something you’ll be building on, that’s quite a different prospect than a rock you’ll be carrying. We all agree that the rocks we’re standing on and building on need to be solid and unshakable, while at the same time we all agree that any rocks we have to heft on our backs should be as small and light as possible. We all agree that we want tiny rocks on our shoulders that won’t burden us or weigh us down. And we all agree that we want massive, unmovable rocks beneath us, upholding our homes and businesses and keeping us from collapsing into a bottomless pit.

But there’s no need to clarify which sort of rock we’re talking about here. We can just assume that everyone already knows that.

That’s how professional pollsters like Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center, approach such questions.

“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate” between big and small Dimock says of his poll findings. “It’s almost exactly down the middle … almost 50-50.”


So which side of that fundamental debate are you on? Do you want a big rock or a small one?

You have to pick one or the other.

"A genetic study of the area turned up that although the Roma (Gypsies) and Jews ..."

LBCF, No. 186: ‘Lone Gunmen’
"... now I want Comfort Ham to be an actual dish. ... I like ham, ..."

LBCF, No. 186: ‘Lone Gunmen’
"In 1995, Madelyn Murray O'Hare, then the world's most famous atheist (launched the lawsuits that ..."

LBCF, No. 186: ‘Lone Gunmen’
"They don't seem to understand that money goes through other hands after it leaves theirs. ..."

LBCF, No. 186: ‘Lone Gunmen’

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Nekouken

    Naturally, there is no possibility of a medium-sized rock.

  • Anonymous

    I’m assuming you know what the rock is for. The question would be silly — utterly stupid and pointless — unless we all already agreed on what the rock is for. No point in asking about the proper size or weight of the rock unless we know that — unless we all share a comprehensive, proper and correct understanding of the purpose of said rock.

    But there’s no need to clarify which sort of rock we’re talking about here. We can just assume that everyone already knows that.

    Of course.  Who would ask such questions unless we already knew the answers?

  • Ian needs a nickname

    Can we all agree that hard rock is best?

  • It’s also important to note that pop rocks with soda can kill you!!

  • Lori

     Naturally, there is no possibility of a medium-sized rock.  

    There’s apparently also no possibility of a big rock to put your house on and a small rock to carry with you. Because there is no way to set things up so that we have significant government involvement in areas where that is necessary to maintain the social contract, and very little government involvement in “ain’t nobody’s business if I do” areas. Clearly that’s unpossible. [eyeroll]

  • Anonymous

    I think the current GOP platform is that we throw rocks at Gays and undocumented people and try to ignore the few who have kept all the gold rocks for themselves. 

  • That’s like people who complain that their taxes are too high. When you ask them about what government services they think are superfluous, etc., they just reiterate their point.

  • I’ve always felt that the federal Department of Fraud, Waste, and Abuse should be shut down. At the very least, it shouldn’t receive 99% of the federal appropriations budget each and every year. Unfortunately, the fatcat corporatists and big-government liberals in Washington won’t do anything about that. Vote the bums out!

  • The former Massachusetts governor said the federal government needs to
    get its boot off the back of the free-enterprise system, allowing
    businesses to flourish and Americans to reap the benefits of vigorous
    market competition. Equal opportunity is a reasonable goal of
    government, Romney suggested, not trying to mediate “equal outcomes.”

    Is this guy fucking serious?

    He’s just recycling all the same old crap that the Republicans have been shovelling out, unchanged, for the last – what – 30 years?

    Every law the Republicans pass is always with the same pomp and fanfare about “getting off the back of the free-enterprise system”, “unleashing opportunity”, “giving vent to the creative forces of capitalism”, and so on.

    It’s SSDD: Same Shit Different Day.

    Hell, Reagan was all about this as the Republicans held the Senate between 1981 and 1987 so they helped his agenda along very nicely. Similarly, Republicans held both the House and the Senate between 1994 and 2006 with only a small interruption when by the absolute barest single seat majority, the Dems had the Senate long enough to trim Bush’s tax cuts somewhat, but even so that barely slowed the Repubs down.

    Bill Clinton happily went along with Republican laws when he “triangulated” that he could bank on his veto to check the worst of the laws even as they busily undid a lot of consumer and worker protections anyway.

  • Don Gisselbeck

    As ever, it is easy to tell what policies a Republican will chose; more wealth and power to the servant class, no; more wealth and power to the predator class, yes.

  • Anonymous

    But we do know the purpose of this rock: to be the US government. What we really have is a divide on the scope of government, which is a very legitimate question. You can’t have a war in Libya half the time, nor can you let Alabama send a cruiser to Libya while Rhode Island abstains.

    I like Lori’s idea of having 2 rocks, but in practice we’ve been moving away from the federalist system for 200 years as the US has grown more internally connected. Everybody on the policy side wants their policies to take effect nationwide, and the federal government has much broader powers of the purse, meaning that state-specific policy is increasingly a luxury of the higher-class states.

  • pharoute

    Can I have a packet of gravel?

  • Anonymous

    Can I have a packet of gravel?

    Yes. And a slingshot.

  • I think you’re kind of missing the point of the metaphor. The point isn’t to say that that the rock is just “the US government” but that the small vs. big government thing is a false dichotomy.

    Some people want a small government when it comes to the regulation of trade and commerce, while others want government’s role in that to be bigger. Some people want government to have broad authority to regulate public morals (to pick a random, totally hypothetical example, fining people for singing the national anthem poorly) while others want a more laissez-faire/libertarian approach. Some people want lots of public welfare spending while others want lots of national defense spending.

    Republicans have done an excellent job getting people to associate “big government” with liberalism (and “small government” with conservatism) but the reality is that it’s a lot more complex than that. That that dichotomy fail to capture the diversity of thought relating to that issue.

  • Last week on the Professional Left podcast, they pretty much nailed this point to the wall.  I just gotta plug that show once in awhile   Seriously though this is exactly one of the things they brought up; in that case in the context of Obama’s approval/disapproval numbers.

    There are questions that need to be asked of people after the initial “Do you approve or disapprove of Barack Obama’s job performance as POTUS?”


    Why do you disapprove?  Is he too liberal for you? Too conservative?  Too centrist?  Not centrist enough?

    Likewise, for approvers – Do you think Barack Obama is – Liberal? Conservative? Centrist? (The assumption being that if you approve the perception of the president is going to line up with one’s personal viewpoints.  It’s unlikely for a conservative to approve of Obama’s job performance and still view him as most conservatives do.  Obviously such a person is going to be rarer than the norm anyway, but there are likely some out there, just like there were Reagan Democrats.

    I suspect you can’t just put those questions down like that, but they’re the kind of thing that should be asked.  Otherwise you get a very 2 dimensional image of a multi-dimensional problem.  It just doesn’t work.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I thought it was pretty clear which roles are appropriate for government for perform and which are inappropriate:

    Illegitimate roles of government include education, healthcare and social security for people not like me, financial support to forms of entertainment I don’t enjoy, environmental protection, and treating the rest of the world like equally valuable human beings.

    Legitimate roles of government include locking up criminals and direct or indirect military action against foreign countries.

    For those of a religious or patriotic bent, the second category may be expanded to include mandating desired standards of behaviour re sexual activity (though not extramarital heterosexual affairs!) and repetition of hollow phrases.

  • I think there is precisely one thing Mitt Romney takes seriously:

    The fact that Mitt Romney really wants to be President.  I don’t think he even knows what to do with the job once he gets it – he just really wants to go down in history President Mitt Romney. (I could say the same for a lot of Republicans honestly.)

  • Thanks, aunursa. That’s right up there with “57 states” and “God damn America” in the list of nonsense that outrages right-wingers. It’s good to be reminded of what passes for “important” to conservatives.

  • cjmr

    Charity Brighton said, “It’s also important to note that pop rocks with soda can kill you!!”

    Actually, the Mythbusters busted that one.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Lil help for the YouTube-deficient?

  • Hey,

    The image attached to this contains the still from Youtube that’s really all you need to know about what a farce Fox News makes out of political reporting.

  • I know.

    (Well, not about the Mythbusters thing — I first saw it on Snopes!)

  • Hey, I was there when he posted that! I was there!!

  • Anonymous

    This is the best analogy for the Small Government Versus Big Government absurdity that I have ever come across, and I shall bookmark it for indefinite use.

  • FangsFirst

    The image attached to this contains the still from Youtube that’s really
    all you need to know about what a farce Fox News makes out of political

    I found it funny that the clip actually has the whole statement, including the ending of “away from all the fog of controversy” which of course makes the underlying “headline” pretty clearly stupid.

    and, to just make it absolutely clear for the “YouTube-deficient,” the clip is Former Speaker Pelosi saying:

    But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of controversy.

    (that said, I do actually think she should have re-thought how
    she phrased that…it is, at the least, super duper awkward)

  • It seems to me that hardly anyone actually wants a small rock, but lots of people want a rock exactly bbig enough dor them and their friends, wthout any space for “Those People”

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Oh. Ta. Yeah, that’s totally up there with the party that funnels billions to their favourite war-profiteers pissing and moaning about the need for small government.

    Thanks for the insightful analysis, oh brave speaker of truth against the Democratic majority*!

    *Obviously not Neutrino

  • Baeraad

    I don’t know. I think that all those enforced-patriotism, repression-of-minorities things are a little like the “conservatives don’t care that veterans are homeless” thing that was brought up a little while back. By which I mean, those things are part of conservatism, and it’s useful to bring them up so as to highlight conservative hypocrisy – but they’re also details, deviations from the overall pattern.

    The basic message of modern conservatism is, “I want the state to stop doing stuff! (except for X, Y, Z stuff that benefit me personally, or that makes me relatively better off by making people Not Like Me worse off)” Yes? It’s that paranthesis that makes things a little complicated, since by its very nature unique to each conservative. But it *is* in fact a paranthesis. As Anursa pointed out in his usual annoying “gotcha” way a while back, the Tea Party has a very simple message – they want the government to stop doing stuff. The fact that each teabagger maintains some reservations doesn’t mean that they don’t agree to that overall ideal.

    The other side of things, though, *is* kind of complicated. The Occupy movement does not have a very simple message. We can’t have one, because we want the government to do stuff – and that raises the question of “what stuff? And how should it do it?” I’m a lot more left-wing than I think even most people here would be comfortable with, and I want, more or less, for everything to be regulated and for all individual needs to be supported – but what regulations, and supported how? That’s where it gets fiddly, even for me.

    I do not really believe that the government should “stay out of” anything, per se. I know that that line of thinking is very close to a USian’s heart, what with all that “congress shall make no law…” stuff, but it always struck me as promising either too much or too little. I don’t think that the government should just abstain from persecuting minorities, I think it should actively protect and promote them so as to counteract discrimination (and in fact, I am perfectly aware that that is in fact how it works out in practice, in the US and elsewhere, so it’s not like my line of thinking is especially revolutionary. It’s just a different perspective). I think, in essence, that the government should do what is right because it’s right, and keep from doing what is wrong because it’s wrong. Working out what is right and wrong is where it gets tricky, but just doing nothing because you assume that you can’t possibly tell the difference? That can’t be the way.

    tl;dr. I think that it *is* fair to characterise the discussion as “we should do something” vs “we should do nothing.” It’s just that one of those positions lead to a lot of further questions, whereas the other one is painfully simple.

    (or to tie it to the original post – I’d say we need a big freaking rock all right, but what *shape* should it be? Because if it has the wrong shape, it doesn’t matter how big it is, it’s worse than useless anyway)

  • beleester

    The reason for the “Congress shall make no law…” is to protect people from themselves, I think. It prevents well-intentioned but easily abused laws. It’s saying “Do not carve sharp spikes on your rock, no matter how cool and useful they are. Don’t even carve stuff that could become sharp and poInty if someone uses a chisel a few times, because someone is going to get hurt by your spiky rock.”

  • How about a pointy rock? :P The 1% could use a good poking with it. (EDIT: Dunno why/how the picture got attached)

  • silverscrawl