I think Nick Kristoff is one of the better NY Times columnists, but today he penned a clunker:

With Tea Party conservatives and many Republicans balking at raising the debt ceiling, let me offer them an example of a nation that lives up to their ideals.

It has among the lowest tax burdens of any major country: fewer than 2 percent of the people pay any taxes. Government is limited, so that burdensome regulations never kill jobs.

This society embraces traditional religious values and a conservative sensibility. Nobody minds school prayer, same-sex marriage isn’t imaginable, and criminals are never coddled.

The budget priority is a strong military, the nation’s most respected institution. When generals decide on a policy for, say, Afghanistan, politicians defer to them. Citizens are deeply patriotic, and nobody burns flags.

So what is this Republican Eden, this Utopia? Why, it’sPakistan.

The conclusion:

[I]n this season’s political debates, let’s remember that we’re arguing not only over debt ceilings and budgets, but about larger questions of our vision for our country. Do we really aspire to take a step in the direction of a low-tax laissez-faire Eden …like Pakistan?

For what it’s worth, Pakistan ranks 83rd on the most recent Ease of Doing Business Index from the World Bank (the US is number five). Pakistan’s government has trouble maintaining order, is plagued by widespread corruption and cronyism, and, despite what Kristoff claims, has a complex web of burdensome, growth-impeding regulations (which partially explains its Ease of Doing Business ranking). This, more or less, is why Pakistan is such an unattractive place to live relative to the United States, not because of the mere fact that it has low taxes and conservative sensibilities. Pakistan is not the logical conclusion of conservative economic ideals.

However, I think that there’s a more interesting point to be made here. Populist conservatives, but also many conservative intellectuals as well, often frame the central ideological battle in the United States as being Big Government versus Small Government. But Kristoff is right that Pakistan’s government is “small” in a certain sense: it does have a low tax burden. The government has direct control over a much smaller portion of money in the economy than does the US government, or the Danish government.

But a government being small in this sense doesn’t mean that it doesn’t impose egregious restrictions on social freedoms or growth- and innovation-stifling economic regulations. The size of the government’s budget as a percentage of the overall economy doesn’t tell you anything about how free citizens living under the government are. What really matters is that the government is limited in the sense that it respects rights and doesn’t crowd out efficient private sector economic activity. The language of “small government” is simplistic in a way that is perhaps attractive from a populist perspective, but it obscures the real issue and the result is confused and misguided thinking by normally smart guys like Nick Kristoff.