Joseph R.


September 28, 2001

Big Government, Having Never Gone Away, Is Now Said To Be 'Back'


This column is called The Old Cause because I think of it as a place to sketch out certain continuities between past and present. William Appleman Williams once wrote that history is "a way of learning." From our excursions into the past, "we return with a broader awareness of the alternatives open to us and armed with a sharper perceptiveness with which to make our choices." In this light, history becomes a means of "breaking the chains of the past."

Post-moderns like to claim that all histories are written for particular hermeneutic communities and that, therefore, no general history is possible or, apparently, desirable. We must have a separate "history" for every "two-bit gathering regardless of [its] size" – to steal a line from Trevor Day. At this rate, we should soon see history dissolve into biography and there will be several billion histories under the slogan "Every Sentient Being Its Own Historian." Is this the end of history?


But, alas, there remain some larger subjects for the historian: the history of ideas, political history, and economic history, to name just the canonical ones. (See my column of July 27, 1999.) There are probably others. These do not go away, even if they might well be viewed from manifold points of view as favored by post-mods.

Since states incorporate numerous ethnic, religious, and economic groupings, not to mention the traditional two genders (some claim there are additional ones), there is still a role for political sociology and political history. This brings me to my topic, which is the claim widely aired in the present crisis that the modern, abstract, sovereign state, having suffered heartbreaking setbacks over the last three decades, is suddenly "back," and is, like the New Nixon, tanned, rested, and ready.


The two great nonevents of the 20th century were the laissez faire economic policy of Republican Presidents in the 1920s and pursuit, by the same men, of "isolationism" in foreign affairs. Great and grave consequences are said to have come from these errors, and whole readings of 20th-century US history ride on those sad outcomes. The main problem is that these events never happened.

Republican fiscal policy, mild corporatism, and other interventions hardly constituted laissez faire liberalism, even if they appear as such relative to the runaway corporatism and bureaucratic state-building of the New Dealers. In the same way, the Republicans' unilateral imperialism in Latin America and their commitment to the Open Door in China was hardly a policy of principled nonintervention. In the end, Hoover (unlike his successor) chose to not risk war with Japan over the China market.

We may need to add a third legend to our list: the legend that states withered away, from about 1979, under regimes ideologically driven by terrible right-wing "neo-liberalism," i.e., laissez faire liberalism. Mrs. Thatcher in Britain, and Reagan and Bush in America, were said to have crippled and dismantled poor old Big Government, which after all, only wanted to help, and which had come into being to right the wrongs of capitalism. The press and academia thrived on spreading this fable, but it might be mentioned that the British Left was far more vicious in making its assault.

Mrs. Thatcher, it is said, broke the power of trade union syndicalism in the UK and privatized a few utilities. Reagan abolished a few microscopic programs, moved others around, went on a "defense" spending spree, and fiddled with a few marginal tax rates. All the while, government grew and grew and grew. Can anyone name an important department which was actually abolished? Can anyone point to any "cut" in spending under the Reagan Revolution which was not merely a slight reduction of a projected increase?

It may be said that economies grew faster than governments in the period in question. That hardly constitutes a "withering-away" of states, unless there is some rule whereby states must always grow proportionately with, or faster than, the economies over which they claim sway. I grant there is a class of people – academics, journalists, special corporate interests – for whom government could never be big enough. From their standpoint it might seem that governments have shrunk dramatically over the past twenty years. And yet they grew.


The friends of statism might be made to concede that governments held their own, and indeed grew over the past two decades, but they will say that states took a terrible ideological beating. Laissez faire ideologues and doctrinaires, aided and abetted by populist demagogues, thwacked the state so hard with their right-wing hobbyhorses that the poor institution got no respect. And that horrible turn of events might have led in time to actual, tangible, empirically demonstrable reductions in state programs, as against reductions in projected rates of growth.

Such an evil could not be allowed to stand. Hence the outpouring of state-worshipping hosannas in the present crisis. Only the state can protect us from the terrorists not named in the Congressional John Doe warrant issued after September 11. Only a further surrender of liberties and property will make us safe – the previous surrenders having somehow failed to accomplish that happy outcome. Yet the state – with all its mighty existing powers, with its legions and galleys scattered across the globe – manifestly did not protect anyone from the monstrous crimes that a few handguns in the possession of airline pilots and crew might have averted.


Let us survey this new literary form – the "state is back" essay. According to Robert L. Bartley, writing in the War, sorry, Wall Street Journal of September 24, "isolationism" is dead, dead, dead. After a cook's tour of Pearl Harbor, World War II, and a few asides regarding the poor fools who doubted the rightness of World War I, Bartley leads us through the vale of tears of the 1970s, when moral doubt set in and Congress, unaccountably, sought to interfere with Presidents' prerogatives in foreign affairs. A sad time it was, when Congress caused the Iran-Contra scandal.

But now, sadder but wiser like chastened former "isolationists" on December 8, 1941, we may all grasp the need for a new foreign policy, which, oddly, is just like the one we already had, except that there will be even more of it. Or as Bartley puts it, "Have the events of the last 10 days ended a running debate, and crystallized a new consensus about America and its role in the world?" One doesn't know, of course, but the events do seem to have emboldened those who never liked having a debate in the first place.

In the Washington Post of September 26, Jim Hoagland writes of "Government's Comeback." He paints a particularly vivid picture of anti-political Americans on a state-wrecking spree. Misled by market ideologues and rising prosperity, Americans ceased to put the poor old state in its proper sovereign place.

Naturally, such foolishness ended on September 11. Now, like frightened children we shall turn to our great Protector and, I suppose, be protected. Will we be allowed to debate our bedtime?

Yes, we shall "have to return government to the center of American life, not whittle away further at its powers and funding." Practical questions alone remain. Will Tom Ridge be as all-seeing and all-knowing as the situation demands? Will the state rise to the heights it scaled in World War II? Or to put it in Hoagland's words, will we "accept a rebirth of some aspects of the national security state?"

Rebirth? When the Hell was it ever gone?

On the same theme, Tony Blankley, writing in The Washington Times on September 26, wants us to "Trade Civil Liberties for Better Security." This seems very unappealing. Give up freedoms? We already gave at the office – we gave some up last year, the year before that, and during the whole mind-numbing forty odd years of the overblown Cold War. "We're fresh out, old chap," we say, slamming the door in the impertinent fellow's face.

That will never do. In the new situation, says Blankley, "every congressman, senator and citizen must discard everything they thought they believed about civil liberties. We all have a moral obligation to think for ourselves and act for the common good." Well, this may not be a big change for Congress; I don't know how much they were thinking about civil liberties anyway. As for the people, we Americans are famous for reinventing ourselves, so I'm sure we can reprogram our thinking about such minor affairs as the first ten amendments to the.... whatever it was.

Making the by now predictable appeal from bad precedent to bad proposal, Blankley recounts how poor Abe Lincoln took up suspending habeas corpus to save the union. This can be done again, he says, but with a sort of modern-day sunset provision. Congress should enact a one-year suspension, renewable, of course, and with it a law which would "construe the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures to mean that any search or seizure is reasonable in our government's efforts to prevent terrorism."

Perhaps so, though I hate to see Congress get into the construing business, when the Courts have already made such a hash of it. If Congress can pass such a law, why bother having a written Constitution to start with? It's decorative, I suppose, but other than that.... Such measures are reasonable, though, for Mr. Blankley, since "We are currently trusting Mr. Bush with our collective lives. I, for one, readily trust him with my liberty also." Well, I think Mr. Bush isn't such a bad fellow, but an epidemic of trust is not the proper foundation for republican forms of government. If that is taken to be an argument against republican government – in favor of what, empire? – then perhaps we do need to reopen that "debate" about foreign policy to which Mr. Bartley just barred the door. Republic or Empire? It has a real ring to it.

If Mr. Blankley inquires further into these things, he might discover that many people – in the 1860s and even today – have found in Mr. Lincoln's union-saving methods an indictment of Lincoln, rather than heroic precedent to which to appeal. As for the new cabinet-level Office of Sicherheit, that was in the works some time back (see the article by Jeff Greenspan, "What Is Homeland Security,"). It will be time enough to think about "giving up" some freedoms, temporarily or not, once we have conducted a thorough study of how many we actually have remaining to us after the awful 20th century, and what the exact content of those may be.


Everything ended on September 11. It is World War II. It is 1861. Go thou and do likewise. Such is the accumulated wisdom of the relative Left (Washington Post), Center (Wall Street Journal), and Right (Washington Times). One begins to wonder if we need more protection from the press than from the terrorists. As for the notion that governments are successful protectors of first or last resort, readers might look at Hans-Hermann Hoppe's new book, Democracy: The God That Failed.

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on


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