Monday, April 14, 2008

Both Ends Against the Middle

In his classic book Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, Robert Higgs (whom I have had occasion to mention in the past here and, in what is apparently, according to the download statistics, one of my more popular postings here) makes the case that social crises generate both demand for and opportunistic supply of bigger government, which becomes the launching pad for even bigger government once we reach the next crisis.

H.L. Mencken once said that “[t]he whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” And so it has been one crisis after another, for much longer than I have been alive. The Port Huron Statement, the founding document of the 1960s New Left, uses the word “crisis” ten times. Politicians on the make must speak the language of crisis in order to persuade voters to reach out desperately and reject the other guy. And so we are currently in the grips of the environmental crisis (global cooling then, global warming now), the race-relations crisis, the health-care crisis, the education crisis, etc.

The press makes much of the ways in which the new behavioral economics can be used to justify government control over our lives – by requiring that employers offer certain kinds of retirement options, by banning certain kinds of financial speculation, etc. The behavioral economics of the state, however, has not benefited from that kind of scrutiny as far as I am aware. If, say, people are neurologically wired to extrapolate current trends in the most pessimistic way, the opportunity will never go away for politicians to grab permanent power for problems that are, when seen (as they should be) from a long-term perspective, temporary and small.

At the moment the political stars are aligned, I think, in an unusually unfortunate way. September 11 has driven many in America to fear Islamism. Given how little thought most of us gave this radical theology and the number of its adherents before that awful Tuesday, this is perhaps a useful corrective. But gradually we see such bulwarks of individual freedom as keeping the national-security state accountable to the judiciary come under attack, all in the name of the government’s looking out for us. The worst-case scenarios for the jihad have them getting and using WMDs in the U.S., but this would be the culmination of a lot of unlikely steps, more difficult since they caught us napping the first time. In its most worrisome forms the jihad is closer to an organized-crime problem than a World War II problem. It does not merit any kind of fundamental rethinking of Anglo-American notions of due process.

And the challenges of global competition, in conjunction with the popping of the housing bubble and the ever-more catastrophic government encroachment on the health-care system portend more squeezing out of individual autonomy in the economic sphere as well. Limited government seldom has much of a constituency, as the founders knew all too well.



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