Friday, May 13, 2011
Small Government, No Lawyers, and Unicorns
When Bill Clinton declared in 1995 that “The era of big government is over,” he was acting in the great political tradition of telling people what they wanted to hear — even if it was a lie.
It was a shrewd lie, because it went to the heart of a deep-seated American belief in the myth of small government, an entity as imaginary and elusive as the unicorn. Clinton was far too smart to believe that this country could be effectively ruled by a small government, and he was no doubt using the sweeping statement to give himself some political cover as he acted to protect essential government services from a determined opposition.
Thomas Jefferson was the leading exponent of small government among our founding fathers, and at the time he had a plausible, if ultimately wrong case. He realized, though, that it depended on America remaining a largely rural nation of small communities rooted in agriculture. Had his view prevailed, we would be more like Portugal today than the superpower we are.
(In fairness to Jefferson, once he became president, he had the sense to veer from his small-government philosophy when circumstances warranted. His defining act as president was the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the nation and drove it farther into debt. It was worth every penny.)
A century after Jefferson’s presidency the country had physically grown to its present size and become industrialized. In the first two decades of the Twentieth Century the federal government was breaking up industrial trusts, creating the Federal Reserve System and establishing an income tax to fund its larger scope of activities.
These were all steps in the necessary direction, but it wasn’t until the New Deal that the social contract was rewritten to reflect the new American reality. As the historian Sean Wilentz wrote, interpreting the work of the great Richard Hofstadter:
“The Populists, he argued, were gripped by both sentimental Jeffersonian rural mythology and provincial conspiracy mongering, whereas the New Dealers were consummate realists and experimenters who had adapted to the urban industrial age … The New Dealers … although similar in some ways to the progressives, understood the limitations of the old individualism in a modern corporate society, and were more interested in curbing capitalism’s ills than in achieving moral and political purity.”
Although the New Deal was highly popular in its time, it generated a strain of fierce and deeply emotional opposition, remnants of which persist to this day. I think those feelings stem from the sorts of things Wilentz was talking about. A part of us, even when we know better, wants to believe in the fondly (if inaccurately) remembered small-town America, where people took care of each other and men of honor conducted business with a handshake and no lawyers.
Elements of that American ideal persist today, and they’re good as far as they go. Whenever I read a news story about friends and neighbors raising money to pay for a family’s medical expenses, my first reaction is how wonderful it is that so many people care. My second reaction is how appalling it is that they had to do it because we lack universal health care in this country. You don’t see stories like that in English or French newspapers.
Try to imagine the needs covered by Social Security and Medicare being provided on a neighborly basis, which would be the first step toward having small government. It wouldn’t be very long before bureaucracy started looking mighty attractive.