Friday, December 10, 2010

The Story of Big Government

The first major expansion of federal power in our nation's history came early in, well, our nation's history, when the Constitution was ratified, replacing the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation barely constituted a national government as it had virtually none of the power we associate with, well, national government. In the context of history, this was by far the biggest expansion of federal power over society, at least in this country, in that federal power as we know it was incorporated. There was one other major expansion but I'll get to that later.

Almost from the word go, the government experienced a still unabated piecemeal expansion. In order to solidify a truly national economy, especially in the face of Revolutionary War debt, the Bank of the United States (which was eventually followed by a Second Bank of the United States and a period of open banking before a panic in 1907 lead to the establishment of the Federal Reserve) was established. Thomas Jefferson wasn't sure if the president had the power to purchase land, but he couldn't turn down France's offer and thus expanded federal power with the Louisiana Purchase. The state of Alaska (from which a certain “small government” proponent supposedly is kept visually aware of Russo-American relations) might not have existed otherwise.

The second of the two major expansions of federal power happened in the Civil War, when the fundamental right of States to leave the United States of America was eradicated. The Civil Rights amendments were a coda that expanded the federal government's power over how states interacted with their residents, but, as we learned from the Jim Crow era, this expansion wasn't enough to ensure legal dignity for all Americans. Despite what some might say, with the debatable exception of the establishment of income tax, which required a constitutional amendment, no expansion of federal power since has matched this one because it ceded to the federal government the power to determine whether or not states were subject to its power.

The industrial revolution, the urbanization of society, the massive amount of immigration, the development of the stock market, and other societal changes created an entirely new economy with entirely new problems that society, as it was, did not have the ability to solve. In response to this new economy, government expanded again through a series of regulations and then, in order to hold society together after that economy collapsed, through massive infrastructure projects and other spending initiatives. The ultimate result of the Depression (which was ended by an even larger government spending program commonly referred to as “World War II”) was a system of regulations on finance and production and a material safety net in order to ensure the Depression never happened again, including the third rails of politics, Social Security and Medicare.

There were expansions of federal power in response the Cold War such as the Committee on Unamerican Activities. The tragedy of Jim Crow was resolved by another expansion of Federal power most dramatically demonstrated by the National Guard forcibly integrating Central High School in Little Rock, and culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Along the way, the government continued to accumulate regulatory agencies such as the EPA and OSHA. The EPA, of course, was established by everyone's favorite tax and spend liberal, Richard Nixon. Of course, not all of these expansions of government were institutionalized. There certainly isn't anything in the Constitution or in legislation about selling weapons in exchange for hostages, for example. There have been more contemporary expansions of government as well, the biggest of which was not the recent Health Care Reform, but the original Patriot Act, which gave the government far more power to observe and detain American citizens than it has had since the Alien and Sedition Acts. And this doesn't even include the size and effect on our society of the ever expanding American military or the actions taken by the CIA (See Legacy of Ashes for that story).

Another way to tell this story is as a story of economic crisis. The private market could not free the slaves. It couldn't prevent factory machines from pulling the arms off of children or stop factory owners from locking their workers in. It couldn't keep human fingers out of our sausages and rat poison out of our medicine. It couldn't stop companies from lying to consumers. For some reason it couldn't teach investors that it was a bad idea to buy stock with the projected dividends of other stocks. Since we're on the topic, the private economy also couldn't stop companies from dumping poison into our water and spewing toxins into our air. Regardless of whether the administration in power was Federalist, Bull Moose, Republican, or Democratic, they almost always responded to these crises through expansions of government power and influence.

This means that the story of “big government” then is not one of liberal or Democrat power grabs, but the accumulation of responses to economic and societal crises. Whenever a Republican or conservative accuses a Democrat or liberal of something about “big government” they are completely ignoring the history of the development of the United States Federal Government. What we have today is the result of two hundred plus years of people responding to problems.

I have no problem with arguing about the costs and benefits of particular government policies, but the “big government” label doesn't do that. The debate between big government and small government was settled over a hundred years ago with the Civil War. My problem with the Republican technique of the “big government” card is that they use it to argue against a proposed Democrat policy without actually arguing against the policy itself. Rather than helping to determine whether a particular proposed regulation will actually stabilize investment banking for example, they simply argue that “big government” as an abstract concept is inherently negative. This argument itself is bad for governance. It's not that I want Republicans to rubber stamp Democrat legislation, but the proposed policies cannot be improved if the opposition led critique doesn't actually engage the policies themselves.

This is a particular example of a more general problem with our political discourse. The sound-byte has no room for nuance and debates have become ballets of sound-bytes, and somehow, despite the presence of three 24-hour news networks, no one seems to have the time to establish the historic context of a given issue. I don't have a solution for this general problem. So much goes into our inability to have productive political debates and so many forces benefit from that inability that a solution will be long in coming. But hopefully, the next time you hear someone try to end an argument by arguing against “big government,” I hope you'll remember this story.

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