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Book Review: Dependent on D.C. by Charlotte A. Twight

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Dependent on D.C.: The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans
by Charlotte Twight (St. Martins Press, 2002); 422 pages; $26.95.

I have often thought about how different the United States of today is from the United States my grandfather knew. A century ago, he was a young man embarking on a business career. He and all other Americans expected nothing from the distant federal government and received nothing. No thought of federal retirement benefits entered his mind, or of federal health-care benefits, educational subsidies, business assistance, or any of the many other government handouts that now consume billions of dollars annually. He also did not worry about having to seek federal permission to do anything, as the scores of agencies which Americans must now bow to and beg for permission to conduct all manner of business operations had not yet been created. People were much freer in 1903 than they are today. They were not dependent on D.C.

How dramatically things have changed since then. Most Americans now expect and receive a wide array of federal benefits and clamor for more. They acquiesce in the great game of Captain May I? that federal agencies require of them for so many actions and transactions. Their wills have been bent to the wishes of the state. They are meek, compliant, and grateful to government and its minions. In less than a century, Americans have gone from being a proudly independent people to being a flock of sheep. How did it happen?

Economist Charlotte Twight offers a most convincing answer in her book Dependent on D.C. The transformation of America has occurred because by deliberately manipulating our ability to stop their power quest, federal officials have used techniques that systematically increase peoples personal costs of resistance, she maintains. Politicians and bureaucrats have not simply seized and exercised powers denied to them under the Constitution, but have also contrived to cement their power grabs into place by making it difficult for people who might oppose them to mount a counterattack. In effect, they have turned government into one of those ratcheting wrenches that can go in only one direction. Government power can ratchet up, but never down.

The conventional account of the accretion of government authority holds that because it came about through democratic processes, it must have conformed to the desires of the people. Twight wont accept that musty old argument, contending that manipulating costs of political decision making in order to achieve results initially inconsistent with actual public preferences has been a recurrent strategy in capturing and maintaining increased government authority over U.S. citizens. (Emphasis in original.) In other words, Americans like my grandfather weren’t asking Washington to start taking over their lives; it was accomplished only by cunning and stealth by politicians.

The book makes an important contribution to public choice theory in the authors analysis of the means used by advocates of government expansion to raise the cost of opposition. Twight provides a comprehensive list of those means, which include:

  • Disguise. Politicians from Machiavelli to the present have understood that by disguising the outcome of governmental policies public resistance can be curtailed. Therefore, politicians use misleading, euphemistic language when describing what their favored policies do. Social Security is a good example. Politicians call it insurance, but it is nothing at all like true insurance.
  • Stealth taxation. Complex and indirect forms of taxation are often favored politically because they tend to hide tax costs from public view, Twight says. The diabolically clever business of withholding taxes is an example of this technique.
  • Restricting access to information. Not infrequently do government officials make it hard for citizens to find out what is really going on. The IRS is a notorious case, having for decades followed the practice of destroying its internal documents.
  • The off-budget gambit. Knowing that citizens concentrate on officially reported budget figures, politicians often hide the cost of new programs by declaring them to be off budget. Twight says, Declaring whole agencies to be off-budget, the U.S. Congress for years excluded their outlays from the federal deficit ordinarily reported to the public, although the outlays in fact continued unabated.”

Once politicians have managed to expand the scope of their power, it becomes more and more difficult for opponents to roll it back. That is because, Twight argues, dependence begets dependence. Expanded government authority in these areas is then the norm, she writes.

New generations experience nothing else. As time passes, people are increasingly unlikely to encounter views challenging the new status quo.

One key reason why is the government schooling monopoly, which breeds in young people a mindset favorable to bloated government and conditions them to believe in its necessity.

Twight devotes chapters to Social Security, income-tax withholding, public education, health- care controls, and the building of federal databases on American citizens to demonstrate her thesis that government officials have sought to raise the costs of opposition to their expansions of power. Her marshaling of facts to support it is crushingly persuasive.
Reversing the trend

But what can we do to stop and reverse the nations growing dependence on the federal government? Twight does a surprising thing here she admits to pessimism.

Today the obstacles to restoring liberty in America are profound. Political transaction-cost manipulation and dependence-legitimating ideological change have inexorably insulated the existing system against liberty’s restoration,

she writes, and then proceeds to explain why the reasons for optimism that are usually cited by advocates of a return to minimal (or even slightly reduced) government are pipe dreams. Central to a new American Revolution against our puppet masters in Washington would have to be an ideology of freedom, but how can such an ideology advance, she wonders,

with government now shaping our education, controlling our health care, telling people what they can and cannot do with their property, controlling their income, regulating their businesses?

A pessimistic book really gets your attention. Can it really be the case that all we have to look forward to in the United States is, in the words of Tocqueville, servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind? I can find no weak spot in Twight’s analysis of our situation. The game really would be over if people like Charlotte Twight (not to mention the readers of Freedom Daily) gave up and resigned themselves to a continuing loss of freedom, not only for themselves, but also for their children and grandchildren. People who cherish their freedom rarely abandon hope, however. They keep looking for weak spots in the system of control that the authoritarians have erected. Twight herself is not so pessimistic that she could not conclude on an upbeat note:

Renewing liberty will be a tremendous struggle, requiring the best in each of us to make it happen. And in that ceaseless struggle, each American faces the glory of the choice.

I recommend that all libertarians read this excellent book.

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    George C. Leef is the research director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.