CRISIS AND LEVIATHAN: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government
The literature related to the emergence of Big Government in the United States is vast. Many historians and social scientists have surveyed and interpreted the decline in traditional American values and institutions, but few scholars have attempted to study in depth and empirically the growth of American government: to try to understand how it has happened and to provide the data that underscore the change. By focusing on certain critical episodes in American history, Robert Higgs has documented the remarkable and alarming growth of Big Government. His ambitious work covers the subject in great detail and in a way that will appeal to both scholars and a more general audience.
Surveying the most popular hypotheses advanced to explain the growth of government, Higgs recognizes that Big Government has various sources. But he makes an excellent case for his thesis that it has been nurtured by a succession of crises over the past century: depressions and wars that have occasioned both massive governmental spending and an increased regimentation of American life and thought. Although a crisis eventually subsides, a residue of governmental functions and authority remains; government grows bigger via a ratchet phenomenon of enlarged residual powers following each crisis. Even more alarming, the crises encourage a climate in which government achieves a kind of autonomy. Political officials and bureaucrats can now do almost anything they please, subject only to the political passions of the moment. Traditional limited representative government goes by the boards. In Lord Actons famous phrase, the passengers exist for the sake of the ship.
For many persons, unfortunately, Big Government has its own fascination. There are, of course, the numerous beneficiaries who in one way or another are on the payroll. Higgs supplies a useful statistical survey of the proliferation of federal agencies, programs, and activities. But more significant than this is the way the ideology of Big Government has captured the popular imagination and obscured reality. Statism has succeeded the older absolutisms of monarchy and church. The warfare state is accepted in the guise of the welfare state. Big Government thus has become a kind of national lottery in which everyone thinks that he or she has a chance to win, and in which no one contemplates losing. The pageantry of Big Government unfolds in Washington, sedulously encouraged by the hero worship with which we surround the Imperial Presidency. Ordinary citizens seldom stop to think that all this is costing moneytheir money. The complain of taxes but fail to associate those taxes with the trappings and ideology of Big Government.
The conclusion of Higgs analysis is a thoughtful but disturbing view of American prospects. Whether traditional constitutional restraints or the unique operation of a mixed economy can avert what he and others fear as a march into socialism or fascism no one knows. As we consider the future, Higgs offers enlightenment if not optimism.