Learning to love (or maybe tolerate) Big Government


In December, Gallup asked 824 U.S. adults this question: “In your opinion, which of the following will be the biggest threat to the country in the future – big business, big labor or big government?”

Sixty-nine percent responded “big government.” That was down from 72 percent in 2013, but otherwise higher than at any other time Gallup has asked.

What exactly has big government done to these people?

Well, according to political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, it has improved their lives dramatically. Over the course of the 20th century, Hacker and Pierson write in their new book American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper, government investment, regulation and other interventions made Americans vastly better educated, longer lived and richer. Government action played a similar — and sometimes even bigger — role in virtually every other advanced nation. Write Hacker and Pierson:

“There are no rich countries with small governments — governments that spend and regulate little, governments that eschew public investment and keep the public sector’s reach to a minimum. (OK, there are a few that are sitting on huge pools of oil.) A big government isn’t a guarantee of prosperity, but where we find prosperity, we find big government, too.”

If that’s true — and I’m pretty sure it is — then why are people in the United States so sour on big government? In Hacker and Pierson’s telling, it’s mainly because of a decades-long propaganda campaign waged by anti-government activists on the right. One key technique, they write, is to: “Say the government isn’t doing its job, make it harder for the government to do its job, repeat.”

They’re specifically referring to the long Republican offensive against the Internal Revenue Service and, again, that seems like an accurate depiction. Still, there has to be some reason why these anti-government arguments have struck such a chord. Two spring immediately to mind.

One is simply that there are diminishing returns to government bigness. Yes, government action was essential to making the great leap to prosperity in the United States and other nations, but that doesn’t mean every government intervention is helpful. The bigger government is, the more chances it has to fail at something.

The other is that administering big government requires a level of specialization that makes it impossible for voters and even elected officials to fully understand and control it — which makes both understandably cranky. This is the subject of a new Brookings Institution paper by political scientist Philip Wallach.

He traces the intellectual history of what he calls “the technocratic administrative state,” which has been subject to many challenges through the decades but seldom quite the outright dismissiveness that he says is being preached by three of the remaining major candidates for president (Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump). Wallach offers a few suggestions for upgrading the accountability of government agencies, which seem pretty sensible. But I’m not quite sure how we get away from the fantasy — espoused by Cruz, if not so much Sanders and Trump — that doing away with big government will somehow fix everything.

Hacker and Pierson’s new book is aimed directly at this fantasy, but I’m torn on whether it will do much to dispel it.

I’m less clear on whose minds will be changed by American Amnesia. Those who are convinced that government is always and everywhere the problem probably aren’t going to be converted by a book that argues not only that government is the solution but also that anti-government activism is the problem.

Still, there is much to be said for frequent recitation of the true history of government’s role in U.S. economic growth. Since its beginnings, as Hacker and Pierson document, this nation has had a mixed economy, with government playing a central role in shaping early communications, financial and transportation networks. That role expanded a lot in the 20th century — and guess what: For the United States, the 20th century turned out pretty great.

There’s lots to criticize about current government policies, but there was never a government-free economic Eden in the United States to which we can aspire to return. Anyone who promises that is trying to sell a bill of goods — and if more voters figure that out, we may actually end up with a better government.