Friday, November 30, 2007

Thinking the unthinkable: smaller government (2)

How did we get "big government" at the state and federal levels, anyway?

The dynamic between a strictly limited government (restricted from DOING EVIL) and a more empowered state (strong enough to DO GOOD) pre-dates the Constitutional Convention, figures in those debates, and broke out in national politics immediately following ratification between the two camps we tend to personalize under Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton saw the power of government and public debt finance as essential tools for building a stronger, more modern United States. But it is important to note that social services in the way we think of them, or government that somehow legislated morality had no part in his thinking.

Jefferson, on the other hand, was an agrarian elitist who believed strongly in the independent yeoman farmer myth. But it is equally important to note that as Governor of Virginia he proposed the first state-funded public education system in American history, and then stretched his own interpretation to buy Louisiana.

So what's really interesting is that neither man was an absolutist; both reflected in greater or lesser degrees the above-mentioned dynamic between limited and big government that we're still arguing about today.

Government necessarily got bigger as both the land area and population of the country grew, and its role in American life changed as the light industrial revolution (1812-1845) and the heavy industrial revolution (post Civil War) kicked in and changed the nature of our economy and standards of living.

But it is really instructive to note that the first long-term, modern-appearing Federal bureaucracy in the modern sense was the post-Civil War Freedman's Bureau, which took on multiple functions in much the same manner as modern social welfare bureaucracies. And it suffered from the same strengths and weaknesses: inept political appointees, overspending, ability to override state authorities if necessary, tendency to treat its client population as victims rather than human beings with their own agendas.

It is also instructive to note that the second major Federal long-term bureaucracy was the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which--without any significant oversight--implemented such policies as involuntary residential schooling of native americans, intentional decimation of bison herds, and massive forced relocation of native peoples.

It is also instructive to note that for every social/political success of "big government" like trustbusting, child labor laws, social security, medicaire, or the civil rights act, that same Leviathan also perpetrated kidnapping of Indian children, internment of Japanese-American citizens, racially segregated accommodations, an interventionist foreign policy, racial quotas on immigration, outlawing the use of cheap, naturally produced analgesics by doctors, forced sterilization of the mentally retarded, and employing direct violence to break up labor actions and political demonstrations.

(Note for big government advocates: segregation ended primarily because of two key events: Brown vs the Board of Education and Jackie Robinson's entry into major leagure baseball. Neither can be attributed to "big government." One was mandated by the courts after decades of government failure to adress racial inequality, and the other was the result of market forces within professional sports.)

What is rarely explored is the relationship between economic and technological development and big government (as well as big corporations). Neither government nor the corporations could either (A) accumulate huge amounts of capital or (B) exercise close control over actions of their agents at a distance without (1) revolutions in communication and transportation like telegraphs, railroads, and steam engines, or (2) the theoretical economic "tools" (financing, fiscal policy, modern stock markets) necessary to manage huge amounts of money.

Ironically, governments and corporations are parallel structures in terms of how they organize their activities. Both engage in vertical and horizontal integration in the attempt to gain monopolistic control of targeted sectors of American society. Their relationship is therefore synergistic rather than truly adversarial, which makes public oversight of private enterprise such a tricky (but in some aspects absolutely necessary) endeavor.

However, and here's my teaser point, modern "big government" and modern corporations emerged in fits and starts only during the 1920s-1930s, and might have withered back after World War 2 had it not been for the Cold War.

Thus my thesis: whether through global economic trends (the Depression) or through external political influences (the rise of the Soviet Union in the postwar--nuclear--world), both big government and big corporations as we now know them came into "permanent" existence primarily because of EXTERNAL rather than INTERNAL forces.

The Progressives, like the Populists and the Abolitionists, were political failures. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower--not the Roosevelts or LBJ--created the foundation for our modern world.

See you next time.

1 comment:

tom said...

None of the "successes" of big government you cited seem very successful if examined to closely.

The Civil Rights Act & child labor laws certainly did some good, but both went too far. If they had merely declared the "Jim Crow" laws unconstitutional but not outlawed private discrimination, market forces would have eliminated segregation & discrimination far more effectively than bureaucracy has. Racism is horribly inefficient -- any business that shuns or ignores a substantial segment of its potential market and/or a source of employees will not last long in a free market. But telling racists that the object of their irrational hatred is now a special government-protected class only serves to drive the hatred underground and strengthen it.

Child labor laws definitely eliminated some terrible abuses, but they too went to far, and have made many poor families dependent on government programs.

There is just nothing good to say about Social Security. Even if you pretend it is actually a retirement program and not a massive unconstitutional transfer of wealth from the young to the old, and further pretend that it can be "fixed" and isn't doomed to implode in the near future, it is still a bad program. It provides less than half the Return On Investment that putting your share of the "contributions" into a passbook savings account would. If you can call having the government take 7.5% of your paycheck and make your employer match 6.5% an "investment" or a "contribution"

In 40 years Medicare/Medicaid has turned more than half of what was once an excellent & affordable health care system into a single-payer socialist nightmare.

"Trustbusting" resulted in hundreds of thousands of pages of bewildering laws & regulations that make it extremely complex and expensive to manage a large, or even medium sized, corporation and a bunch of extremely inefficient government enforced monopolies that provide poor service at high prices.