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The Era of Big Government Being Over Is Over


It is hard not to notice a certain amount of glee in the aftermath of the catastrophe of September 11. Some pundits and commentators have taken this line: “So, where are all you government bashers now? Let’s see one of you step forward and criticize big government now that we need it to save us from the terrorists.”

I’m paraphrasing, of course. But similar words have been printed on news and op-ed pages from New York to California. For example, Jeff Faux, a socialist at the Economic Policy Institute, has written, “When the chips are down, where do we turn? To the government’s firefighters, police officers, rescue teams…. And to big government’s Army, Navy and Air Force.” But such sentiments are not coming from the so-called left alone. After all, the Republican Party favors bailing out the airlines and an “economic stimulus package.” They’re all Keynesians now.

It appears that the era of big government being over is over. This is good news for lots of aspiring economic planners. Let’s face it, there are politicians and social scientists who have been frustrated for the last 20 years during which the case for big government has suffered badly. The implosion of the Soviet Union and the obvious failure of one government program after another has made these difficult times for socialists. They’ve conjured up environmental disasters to jump-start the cause, but it hasn’t quite taken. Now there is the perceived need to beef up government in all sorts of ways to protect us from terrorists. The beefing up is likely to consist not only of the usual economic intervention, but also of more widespread wiretapping (the Clinton administration already had set records in this regard), email interception, and perhaps restrictions on encryption.

Let’s get serious. When Bill Clinton declared the era of big government over, he didn’t mean it and it didn’t happen. Big government has not gone away. The terrorists pulled off their awful crimes not because we have too little government, but because we have too much. First, we have too much government in foreign affairs. Washington and Jefferson advised that we as a nation avoid political entanglement with other nations and that we practice free trade with all. We long ago thumbed our noses at that sage advice and entered hostility-generating entanglements all over the globe. Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East. Today it is considered a virtue to be ignorant of U.S. meddling in the Middle East, but ignorance is neither bliss nor security. Knowledge and understanding are preferable. They are the path not to the exoneration of the terrorists, as some have inexcusably claimed, but to the prevention of future outrages against humanity.

As for domestic policy, there has hardly been a retrenchment in the last 20 years. Ronald Reagan left the government larger than he found it. Federal revenues doubled over his two terms. (Yes, the tax rate cuts stimulated that, which means taxes weren’t cut nearly enough.)

Bill Clinton had welfare reform forced on him by the Republicans, but with government-provided daycare and health care, the budget has gone up, not down. Government may have looked smaller next to the booming economy, but it is not smaller in the amount of power and influence it wields over our lives.

And while this big government was busy with all this meddling, it apparently wasn’t doing what it claims it does: protect us from aggression.

The issue now is whether our safety depends on government’s getting even bigger. It was the federal government that was charged with keeping the cities and — for gosh sakes! — the Pentagon free from attack. It failed miserably. But under the perverse rules of the political sector, when government fails, we are forced to give it even more resources. No one even resigns in disgrace, much less gets fired.

Before we embark on a spasm of government-building, which, believe me, will not be only for the duration of the terrorist threat, let’s recall that America’s greatness, prosperity, and resiliency have come from our freedom and decentralization. Now is not the time to further concentrate power in Washington.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.