Delineating the Dead Hand of the Past

Wriston, Walter B.


Delineating the Dead Hand of the Past

Delineating the Dead Hand of the Past


"There is no good in arguing with the inevitable," J.R. Lowell once wrote, and Robert Higgs, in his new book "Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government" (Oxford, 339 pages, $24.95), does not attempt to, but he does try to explain the growth of big government. Although we all know that government is big and growing -- just how big and how fast it is growing is often in the eye of the beholder.

Merely quantifying what government is and does is a massive analytic task. One can count the number of governments: "There are more than eighty thousand separate governments in the country today, more than sixty thousand with the power to tax," Mr. Higgs notes. One can measure size by looking at government spending as a percentage of GNP, or by the level of government employment.

Ratios and numbers are interesting, but have their problems, because the meaning of the growth of government resides, "in what governmental employees do, especially what they do to or for private citizens." This growing power of government to control and allocate and enjoy economic resources often leaves few fingerprints on economic statistics. It is what government does, rather than its statistical size that really impacts our lives. Indeed, Mr. Higgs believes that the size of government rarely corresponds with "the underlying essence of government, which is coercive power." It is this immense growth of the scope of government's "coercive power" that concerns Mr. Higgs and sends him searching for the forces that power the expansion.

"Crisis and Leviathan" examines the various theories and analyses that seek to explain the "ratchet" -- that process by which some "emergency" causes government to increase power over our lives, and when the crisis passes, never quite give us back our old freedoms. The ratchet may slip a notch or two back, but it rarely returns to where we started. We permit this loss of freedom because of a kind of Pavlovian reflex that conditions us to believe that government requires more power in times of trouble. The next time we get price and wage controls, it is a little easier to accept, since after all we had them before, and everyone "knows" government needs this power.

While acknowledging many different analytical techniques can help explain the growth of government, and indeed that many have merit, Mr. Higgs believes that the major determinant was our national reaction to a handful of crises in our history. Each "emergency" provoked expansion of government power, and once new coercive power was attained, there was no return to "normalcy." Each crisis also altered the "ideological climate." World War I produced a garrison state: the draft, the suspension of free speech (Espionage Act, 1917), the control of all shipping and food controls (the Lever Act). Citizens even were required to observe 12 rules for eating in restaurants. The courts -- mostly after the war -- generally upheld the extraordinary power exercised during the war.

Mr. Higgs traces how much of the credit for winning the war would be attributed later to economic collectivism and how this perception would linger and be revived when the Great Depression hit. Almost inevitably, greater government rode in on the back of a new "emergency." The Depression left an intellectual legacy that favored increased governmental power over the economy. One enormous result, Mr. Higgs states as follows: "To take -- indirectly if not directly -- other people's property for one's own benefit is now considered morally impeccable, provided that the taking is effected through the medium of the government. Only a vague moral uneasiness sets a limit on such takings."

Mr. Higgs contributes a good sense of history to the literature of the concept of limited government, but to some extent one is left with the ancient chicken and egg conundrum. Ideology may either drive or result from an event. In a certain sense, Mr. Higgs is a determinist. "Historical development," he says "is a path-dependent process: where the political economy is likely to go depends on where it has been." It is a gloomy Spenglerian view of some foreordained future that is presented just at a time when more and more areas of the world are moving away from the failed socialist economics and toward freer markets and political liberty. He briefly tips his hat to the Reagan revolution, but argues that "the ideology that dominated the late sixties and early seventies is presently in retreat, but far from defeated."

He ends on a note of deep pessimism, with only one ray of hope shining through. There remains a hope ". . . if ideas can gain sway through rational consideration in the light of historical evidence and moral persuasion." In a sense, this sums up an ambivalence that pervades the book; ideas matter, but may not in the end be decisive in shaping tomorrow. The whole American experience with free markets in ideas, goods and services would seem to give our children a better chance for freedom than Mr. Higgs's "path-dependent process" would seem to indicate.

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