Big Government: Pendulum or Runaway Train?

Ever since FDR “saved” the economy – either through his welfare and public works programs if you like his fiscal model or by entering World War II if you believe the country was going to turn around on the basis of a business cycle anyway – despite his inept handling of the Depression – the size and role of the federal government in the business life of America has continued to grow.

Truman was too busy fighting wars and dealing with new international realities with our Soviet allies to leave a huge mark on America Inc., but conservative president, DDE, built the interstate highway system with a heavy dose of liberal spending, a symbolic and tangible symbol of a more federally driven America economy.

JFK we hardly knew you. We’ll never know his spending agenda based on his short tenure, though his activism in other areas might lead us to believe he would have been big government in all ways.

Inspired by political activists like author John Steinbeck – and in a well-documented strategy to secure minority votes, LBJ attempted to build a ‘Great Society’ – a phrase he borrowed from Steinbeck – to further expand the government’s role and responsibility as the provider and protector of the people’s welfare.

Let’s break from this historical free for all for just a second. Everyone, including politicians of all stripes, is concerned with the welfare of “the people” and individual persons. Whether one cares is not what is being debated, though in the political world it is posited by big government proponents that if you don’t want government to take responsibility for people’s welfare you don’t care about people’s welfare. The fiscal conservative or political libertarian will argue that he or she cares just as much about the welfare of individuals, he or she just does not think government does a very good job of supplying it. They want an old school model that limits the role of government to good laws and national defense – and leaves individual welfare up to individual effort, which will be much more productive and efficacious in a free enterprise system the thinking goes.

But what happens when that doesn’t work, big government proponents ask? Some free enterprise advocates agree with having clearly defined and limited temporary aid measures in place – others argue for the “family and friends” need to save you program. But based on what we’ve seen so far in our historical foray, there really haven’t been too may free enterprisers in control, no matter what we might assume from party affiliation.

RMN actually toyed with price controls, which would made him a hero among Marxist ideologues and an enigma to his independent, puritanical forebears, but ultimately, he poured his attention on foreign policy and then shifted his focus to another set of problems that were a little more personal in nature.

JC. We hardly knew you. Stagnation and malaise were the order of the day. The result of bad business or too much government intervention? Carter wasn’t sure there was a possible solution from the government or private sector and suspected we might be headed for leaner days. He spoke about those suspicions a little too forthrightly and the electorate lost as much confidence in JC as in the country’s future.

That ushered in the reign of RWR, who was sure it was the latter, too much government intervention, that was the problem. No one in the media and not even his vice president believed in his “voodoo” economics, but he get elected. He cut capital gains taxes, eliminated and simplified regulations to doing business, and cut income taxes for the middle and upper middle classes. (He would have done the same for the lower and wealthiest classes but it is impossible to cut anything from nothing.) It can be argued that he restored America’s business star, setting the stage for the largest capital growth campaign in history and the rise of Bill Gates. What he didn’t do, however, was cut government spending. And it wasn’t just because he built up the military. Liberals and columnists – I would have said Liberal columnists but why be redundant? – bemoaned all the benefits he cut from the poor. Not true. He did occasionally cut government program increases but never spending.

GHB (W’s dad). We hardly knew you, either. I do recall H was kinder and gentler than Reagan – at least he said he was – and raised taxes to prove it despite the protests of lip readers to the contrary.

WJC got his butt kicked on socialized medicine early in his first term. His solution? Keep Hillary away from Congressional hearings and enjoy Reagan’s promised ‘peace dividend.’ Then he started experiencing the joy of balancing the budget and reducing the federal deficit so much he went out and tweaked some welfare policies so that they became workfare policies. For the first time in 60 years people were involuntarily cut from welfare rolls. Bill might be the last and the only fiscal conservative of the past 100 years. Deep down, I suspect that still bothers him.

GWB. Or just W. A man of principle, faith, and profligate spending habits. He and the man who followed him, BHO, are architects and builders of an expanded role for government through TARP(s) that might have made FDR’s head spin. Even the German socialists are confused. When they throw money at economic problems it is at least to save unnecessary jobs. In America’s iteration of corporate welfare, it is to eliminate jobs and save companies.

The latest Obama move has been to appoint a ‘Special Master for Compensation’ to oversee executive and employee pay at companies that accepted government bailout money. Any wonder so many are fighting like crazy to give this ‘free’ money back? Any wonder Hugo Chavez, left-wing socialist president of Venezuela, claims he is more right wing than Obama?

So is the size and scope of the federal government cyclical – a pendulum that is simply on a high note of growth? Or is it a runaway train navigating hair-pin turns as adroitly as possible?

If these economic days are tough on your personal welfare and you see a bright shining light ahead, it might mean there is hope at the end of the tunnel for you. Or it might mean you better jump off the track in a hurry if you don’t want to get hit!

Comments

  1. says

    Well done. There’s a pendulum, and the arc is manipulated by the vision (and actions) of the government.

    Your point about liberals and conservatives caring for the welfare of others is well taken. As one of the former I do tend to look down my nose at those who seem less generous. Might have been Will Rogers who said liberals are generous with other people’s money.

    What I’ll add to the dialog is that we may be sitting at a significant intersection. If so, history will serve as an education but perhaps not an indicator of the future.

    The future is less likely to resemble the past right now than at any time in our history.

  2. Anonymous says

    Big government is here to stay, in my view, and it is one symptom among many that our democracy has broken down. That Mr. Gilroy focuses almost exclusively on recent past presidents is another sign of decay, since Americans have for the most part opted out of the political process, and only participate to the extent of voting for president. There is a pendulum effect — government alternates between socialist and capitalist orientations every generation or so — and this pattern of alternating is a beneficial aspect. But partisans from both left and right have found ways to expand the size of government for their own purposes. Democrats, for example, favor a range of entitlement programs to further social justice. Republicans, in contrat, favor subsidies to corporations. In any event, government grows and grows and grows. The result is higher taxes, less liberty, decreased power for state governments, bloated bureaucracies, partisanship, inability to confront serious long term problems such as social security underfunding or global warming, and a mindless strategy to prevent terrorism. In my book (below) I trace the origin of the breakdown of democracy in America to local citizens who decided, for various reasons, to skip local town meetings in favor of personal or economic pursuits. It was millions of these decisions, over time, which weakened local governments which, in turn, passed problems to higher level governments (to county, state, federal government), and I examine cause-and-effect relations in more detail.

    The unfortunate prognosis is: our democracy is moribund, and there is little individuals can do to reverse things. The next fifty years will not be kind to America, unfortunately.

    Thomas W. Sulcer
    author of “Common Sense II: How to Prevent the Three Types of Terrorism” (Amazon/Kindle)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *