Author of Saving Democracy!, Wasted Genius and Common Genius

America — The Myth of Limited Government

The Question: Is America a paragon of Limited Government or Does it Owe its Success to a Big Strong Central Government ?? This question was recently raised by Bill Novak and was posted at “History of American State Power.”

THE ANSWER lies in pieces– Generalities never make for good analysis. If we are talking international affairs, clearly the Power and Influence of America throughout the world, both financial and military, lay in the centralized might of its many States. However, the innovative and enterprising nature of its individual inhabitants, operating in a free and competitive economy, bubbled up from the bottom to create the nation’s vast industrial and institutional success. Because every nation must protect its people from foreign threats the need for centralized power in foreign affairs is without question. The remaining question then is in domestic affairs– how much did the nation’s success depend on a centralized government vs. the actions of individuals operating as the invisible hand of economic progress?

THE DOMESTIC INTERNAL RECORD requires a look back at the 400 years of American history. It cannot be answered by analyzing today’s opposed forces of centralized power and private interests. We must recognize the time frames involved and the gradual transformation of America over the last 400 years. From 1620 to 1860, there was 240 years of extraordinary growth. American settlors went from a small group on the Eastern seaboard, carving log homes and rustic farms out of a wilderness to the transcontinetal railroads of the mid-nineteenth century. By the early 1700’s people such as Benjamin Franklin’s parents arrived, seeking relief from the centralized despotism that still persisted in England, and their children took advantage of the opportunities for all in the new “open” and unrestricted New World. John Witherspoon arrived in the 1750’s from Scotland, escaping Hume’s new secular “enlightenment,” to build Princeton University on the back of the Great Awakening religious revival. In the last half of the eighteenth century, Franklin’s generation combined with those of an age with two of Witherspoon’s famous students to secure independence from England and shape the new Constitutuion. In 1850 Andrew Carnegie arrived from Scotland, was apprenticed out as a “bobbin boy,” and quickly demonstrated the upward mobility available in America by founding the largest steel industry in the world. These were extraordinary times, the foundations of a great new super-power were laid. During this period, the central government’s role was primarily restricted to securing international interests and providing the legal and judicial systems needed to moderate disputes and protect private property. The 240 years of success in advancing domestic well-being and economic affluence owed little to the powers of a strong controlling central government. Indeed, the 240 year period ended with the Civil War where for the first time the power of the central government was asserted as supreme over more local rights. This was a worthy cause, to the extent that it ended slavery, but it marked the split in time between original limited government and the subsequent expansion of central power.

EARLY AMERICA VS MODERN AMERICA– America’s history is not of one cloth. The early colonists built a great nation quickly because they were not burdened by oppressive regulations or a despotic government. That “country” of independent and self-reliant citizens was already 150 years old when the Constitution was written–and it was written to keep the nation’s people free of oppressive government. That entrepreneurial and laissez-faire beginning remains true, but since 1850, it has been gradually weighted down by limitations on freedom imposed by an ever-expanding central government. The spirit of that 240 year period of unshackled growth can be seen throughout history–such an empowering environment created other “new” and vibrant societies in early Greece, 13th century Venice, 16th century Holland, 18th century Scotland, etc. America was modelled after such successful republics of history. As Cato had already observed by the 17th century, societies always faired better in their early days when free and open, than they did in their latter days when they became oppressed by new ideologies, regulations, and oppressive governments.

Novak’s article points out the many arguments of those who say America is great, but after all, we have a huge powerful central government that “manages” and directs almost everything happening today. So, they conclude, we need an even bigger and stronger central government to make things even better. These same theorists claim that America’s free enterprise and capitalistic nature is a myth. However, the only reason they can now call this a Myth is that over the past 150 years our government has grown to the point where it is limiting the freedom and initiative of its people. But the so-called “myth” was very much in operation when we enjoyed heady growth, and it has not been demonstrated that the more recent expanded role for government has helped. In fact there are signs that it has hurt. The tax rates are creating inequities and a growing burden on all those who work. The expanding governmental programs lay a burden of regulations, licensing, and paperwork on everyone. The Leviathon of Big Government is piling up debt, deficits, and abasing the value of the dollar. There are signs of decline, and other nations, copying the free and unregulated techniques of our past success are catching-up. Because of the momentum of a successful past, and the accumulated wealth and infrastructure slowly built, it takes a long time to destroy a prosperous nation. So, we can conclude, yes, we are not (anymore) a really free capitalistic society flourishing under a very limited government. But we cannot conclude that the change is for the better. Someone wrote that a long lived parasitism requires a sturdy host, and it is possible that the foundations of America, laid during its first couple hundred years, has provided the host for that growing burden of parasitic government.

HAVE AMERICANS CHANGED ?? If our economic and governmental character has changed during the last few hundred years, what if any, was the impact on the attitude of the nation’s citizenry. One might expect that as government’s role expands, so the individual’s role contracts. It is important to consider such a change on our citizenry because, after all, it is simply the individual citizens that make everything happen. The government can influence and regulate the people but only the people man the production lines, grow the food, and make the sale, collect the proceeds, and give the government half to cover its costs. Today, with almost one-half of the populace on welfare, retired, on disability, or working for the government, there has been a big change from early colonial days when almost nobody was in those ranks. It follows that many Americans no longer possess the independent and self-reliant attitude of those who settled and developed the continent. They have been encouraged by utopianists to become victims and accept governmental largesse. American history has followed past examples of free nations that gradually succumbed to populist democratic notions of a “nurturing and controlling” central government. To the extent that an ever-growing portion of the citizenry opt to accept or take advantage of such largesse, the ranks of the producers will shrink. Any understanding of human motivation suggests that if the largesse is ample, easily obtained, and without stigma, the ordinary person would be considered a fool to choose the alternative–working for a living. If the supply of welfare funds and programs increase, the demand for same will inevitably follow, and grow, to always exactly equal the supply. While the individual who opts for welfare may be showing a shrewd and wise common sense, there remains a debilitating impact on the children who never see their dad go to work. And that is how the citizenry’s “attitude,” the all-important measure of a society’s vigor, usually enters a deteriorating tailspin.

GOOD GOVERMENT VS HARMFUL GOVERMENT — In evaluating government power, it is the distinction between two critically different types of intervention that must be looked at. We need a strong government, but its power must be only directed in a way that empowers individual action. A laissez-faire society needs a “strong” government to maintain and protect the institutions that allow free competition–such as an equitable legal and justice system, a strong international presence to protect its citizens, police to protect personal and property rights, and an efficient system of deeded property and financing rights. What the nation does not need is a strong governmental role in banning cigarettes, licensing every trade, handing out taxpayers funds to every special interest group, and a Congress that spends an inordinate amount of time investigating the use of strength enhancing drugs for athletes. Alan Deshowitz’ book “Rights from Wrongs” makes that distinction– between such rights that protect individuals from the government (negative rights) and the “positive rights” that have gradually come to pre-occupy the government with such things as free drugs for the elderly, monetary rewards to single moms with illegitimate children, and huge personal injury awards to people who spill hot coffee on themselves! This same division of government authority has been clarified by Joseph Johnston in “The Limits of Government:” In a “protective” state, “. . .officials concern themselves with preserving the conditions under which private interests may be pursued. The affirmative state, on the other hand, chooses a goal to be pursued on behalf of everyone. . . the vocabulary of the affirmative state tends to be military (the ‘war on poverty’), and it relies on the organizational structures of administration, command and bureaucracy rather than adjudication and arbitration of disputes. It spawns overseers, bureaucrats and inquisitors, whose function is to supervise adherence to the path of virtue and conformity. Civil law gives way to administrative command. People are treated not as free individuals but as subjects to be treated, hospitalized and nurtured–and of course, taxed to pay for all these privileges.” Clearly such a change in American governmental philosophy has had and will continue to have a debilitating effect on a growing number of its people.

THE LESSONS OF HISTORY show that what Novak is trying to recap–the varying role of government–follows an age old pattern: Successful societies that presaged the American miracle of affluence and freedom had to originate in an environment of economic freedom but as they grew in affluence and were seduced by new elites that championed centralized governments offering more and more “positive rights,” each successful society entered a period of decline. It is no “myth” that America was started by free and independent people and it is no “myth” that we are approaching an ending as the docile dependent sheep that every advanced welfare state breeds. This historical pattern can be illustrated by posing “The Radzewicz Riddle” : “If simple young societies can grow rapidly, why is it that when their people become better educated, more intellectual, and more compassionate, their early success falters and Decline sets in ?”