Wednesday, October 26, 2005

"They will always lose"

In college one of my political science professors tossed off an offhand comment in his first lecture to the effect that "over time, the modern state tends to expand." He meant expand both in intensity and scope - government becomes more effective at exerting power, and starts to bring more areas of life under its control - but especially the latter. This is historically obvious, even if you look simplistically at the proliferation of government agencies, not just in the U.S. but in all industrial countries. We started with State, Treasury, Justice, and War, and look where we are now*. I asked him what that meant for people hoping for "smaller government" and he kind of shrugged and basically said it wasn't in the cards.

Tyler Cowen agrees:
I have a simple theory: in any period of time, government grows as large as it can, given available technology and a few cultural constraints. For better or worse, voters support this growth. ... Short of technological retrogression and negative economic growth, we should not expect government to ever get smaller. ...

The complainers are the libertarians. They will always lose, and they will always be intellectually important.
*added cabinet-level agencies are Interior (1849), Agriculture (1889), Labor and Commerce (1903, split into two in 1913), HHS and Education (1953, split in 1979), HUD (1966), Transportation (1967), Energy (1977), VA (1989), Homeland Security (2003).


Blogger Jami said...

i feel like the libertarians won back in 1776. the constitution is all about protecting us from the government. if only the "strict constructionsts" knew it.

11/03/2005 11:05:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Well, that's true, and you can't discount things like national political culture - eg a book I discussed on here a couple months ago, Hartz's "The Liberal Tradition in America" (here and here). And it's true that the Constitution set up a government designed to be pretty much ineffectual - only when all three branches of government are controlled by the same party is it possible to get anything done. Hence the massive expansion of federal spending under the Bush administration but not the Clinton administration. Major initiatives like the New Deal and Great Society were similarly carried out by united government.

Interestingly, it's only the coherence of American society / strong American political traditions that allows this system to function - in 19th century Latin America, where many of the new republics adopted new constitutions modeled after the U.S., the separation of powers put so much stress on the government that it just collapsed into dictatorship. E.g., the president would ask for something from Congress; Congress would say screw you; after a few "screw you"s the president would get frustrated and announce a military coup. Interestingly, Washington almost had a chance at a military coup back in 1783, when some of his officers were annoyed about not receiving back pay and were whispering about overthrowing the Continental Congress. Of course, he would have nothing to do with it - lucky for us!

But back to the actual point of this post - the libertarian constitution of 1776 has been modified in several ways - e.g., actual amendment (income tax is a HUGE one!), and more importantly court decisions which have allowed the federal government to take on an expanded role, starting with the New Deal. Originalist libertarians are constantly complaining about how these court decisions ruin the "original understanding" of the constitution, but that doesn't mean that they're going to win the argument. Most people like big government, and they'll support the courts that give it to them. As Tyler Cowen said, the libertarians will always lose, and they'll always be intellectuall important.

11/04/2005 09:31:00 AM  
Blogger Genius said...

Surveys I have seen show the public are usually more libiterian than their government - possibly because the government itself pushes for more poer to do more good as they see it.
I also think that libiterians will inevitably loose - but they can cause a lot of trouble on their way down.

11/12/2005 05:23:00 AM  
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