What Made The Government Grow

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A pair of political scientists wrote in 1990 that between 1964 and 1972 “a new age emerged [whose] most defining characteristic is an uneasy acceptance by liberals, moderates and even at times conservatives of a powerful national establishment.” Ironically, they speculated, Ronald Reagan’s personal appeal might have put a friendly face on it and thereby made it more acceptable even as he railed against it. In any case, they concluded, “Although big government may make all Americans queasy some of the time, it now makes only a tiny fragment nervous all of the time. With fewer and fewer exceptions, Americans have come to terms with a powerful central establishment. It may be telling that when they are informed that they have become quite comfortable ‘living with leviathan,’ most Americans today cannot begin to fathom what that means.”

It is tempting to leave that as the final word, but it is impossible at close range to know if it really is. Following the election of 1992 (in which Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote with stinging attacks on inept and bloated government), there came rumbles of a growing revolution, or perhaps a counterrevolution, and these culminated in the 1994 election of a Republican Congress swearing to cut the monster down to size. By January of 1996 President Clinton himself had apparently signed on with his declaration in the State of the Union message that “the era of big government is over.” By then the “damn-the-government” outcry ranged from the extremes of right-wing militia revolutionaries to the modest promises of Vice President Gore to “re-invent” government.

But is there, in fact, a revival of the individualist philosophy of an Emerson or the praise of government frugality of a Jefferson cited at the beginning of this investigation? Are Americans willing to pay the price of a genuine and sweeping reduction in government? The 104th Congress, chosen in 1994, for all its promises to swing the ax, cut no important entitlement program with a large constituency—defense included. Its members, like everyone else, seemed uncertain of what the voters would do if they really kept their antigovernment promises.

“Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?” God asked of Job. Perhaps the question that the American people have yet to answer clearly is not only “Canst thou?” but “Wilt thou truly?”