Paul Milazzo is an associate professor of history at Ohio University. The following paper is in support of the resolution, "There's Too Much Government In My Life" debated on "This Week" on Sunday, Dec. 18.
When polls suggest, as Gallup did again recently, that a majority of Americans (64%) think too much government afflicts their lives, the clucking of pundits and professors is never long to follow. The crudest gleefully invoke some permutation of "government hands off my Medicare;" the more measured point out how many of the largest federal transfer programs benefit the middle class, or note the ways in which federal (and state) policies have shaped the contours of modern life, from the high tech economy of the (politically conservative) Sunbelt to the residential patterns of the suburbs.
The growth of big government was the big story of the 20th century, but a complex one that often resists simple dichotomies of right versus left. For conservatives, however, that history offers something other than an ipse dixit. Despite the prominent role government has come to play in our lives, the average Tea Partier in 2011 has much she can draw from the past to support the case George Will and Paul Ryan defended Sunday morning. Trend is not destiny, after all, and progress need not follow the teleology of state expansion. We can learn from our mistakes.
And mistakes there have been, of a most predictable kind. Americans have repeatedly overlooked the real limits of what government can deliver, and the real damage that can accrue when those limits are transgressed – not the least of which, as Ryan noted, is genuine cynicism about government that erodes our civic life and public discourse. In essence, the congressman was calling for a modicum of modesty when contemplating what government ought to do (Robert Reich's concern about "who government should be for" elides this ultimate question of means and ends).
But it is difficult to win elections with modesty. Modern governance is framed as problem solving, and our problems, like our wants, are endless. Since World War II we have come to expect the government to marshal the resources, institutional capacity, and technical expertise to right the wrongs of an imperfect marketplace society, to provide the kind of positive security President Roosevelt imagined when, in his 1944 evocation of an "economic bill of rights," he first employed the explicit rights-based discourse that would animate post-1945 liberalism. The problem, however, even for the wealthiest of nations, comes with an inability to articulate any implicit limit on the reach of those rights or the scope of the socio-economic agenda that ensues, leaving no inherent brake on recourse to state power.
Curiously for a showdown on big government, the debaters made few references to President Obama's signature health care law, which nonetheless embodies the dearth of modesty in our politics quite nicely. No one mentioned Friedrich Hayek, either, but his economic philosophy infused the case Will and Ryan put forth. In short, Hayek, like Ludwig von Mises and other economists of the "Austrian School," emphasized how the spontaneous order of the price system conveys vast quantities of information among countless market actors, allocating scarce capital, labor, and resources far more efficiently than top-down planning mechanisms ever could.