FANS OF LEVIATHAN received a gift a few days before last Christmas from the Brookings Institution, Washington’s most respected liberal think tank. Brookings’s Paul Light polled 450 political scientists and historians to come up with a list of “Government’s Greatest Achievements of the Past Half Century.”
Light has done some excellent work in the past but succumbed to his enthusiasm this time around. He observed that “the ratings clearly put the lie to the conventional wisdom that the federal government creates more problems than it solves. To the contrary, the ratings suggest that the federal government is fully capable of tackling important and difficult problems — and succeeding.”
The report is generating hosannas from the usual suspects. One newspaper headlined Washington Post columnist David Broder’s puff piece on the study “On the Virtue of Big Government.”
It is difficult to read the Brookings “Government’s Greatest Hits” list without bursting out laughing. The professoriate appears to have completely absolved government from any role in creating problems politicians later promised to solve.
For instance, achievement number 3 is “Promote equal access to public accommodations” and number 5 is “Reduce workplace discrimination.” It was the federal government under President Woodrow Wilson that made noxious Jim Crow laws the national standard. Shortly after Wilson took office in 1913, mass firings of black federal employees occurred. The chief federal revenue collector in Georgia announced, “There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place is in the cornfield.” President Roosevelt’s New Deal, by vesting power in labor unions and other organizations to run closed shops, also had a devastating effect on black employment.
Accomplishment number 9 is “Reduce the federal budget deficit.” Prior to the 1950s, the U.S. government rarely ran sustained deficits outside of major economic crises. Congress and the president have gotten lucky in recent years, thanks to the surge of revenue — and that is all it takes for people to think that the federal government is a savior because it is temporarily not acting like a drunken sailor. The fact that Americans are overtaxed somehow becomes proof that politicians have become saints.
The number 10 achievement is “Promote financial security in retirement.” Are elderly Americans more secure now that politicians continually try to frighten them with the specter of being thrown in the street by the opposition party? Prior to the New Deal, Americans had among the highest savings rates in world. Most elderly Americans were independent prior to the Great Depression. The savings rate for the most recent year was zero. The dollar has lost more than 90 percent of its value since 1933 as the government has intentionally subverted the currency in order to maximize its power to manipulate the nation’s finances.
Number 21 is “Expand foreign markets for U.S. goods.” The U.S. government’s trade policy since 1950 has worked to open markets: yet one should not forget that it was the U.S. government in the 1920s and early 1930s that did much to wreck the international trading system. And even to this day, U.S. politicians’ enthusiasm for selected protectionist scams — such as agricultural import quotas and dishonest antidumping laws — stymies further liberalization of world trade.
Many of the federal accomplishments seem to be nothing more than a forgetful liberal wish list. Number 36 is “Reduce crime.” Crime rates have declined in recent years but are still far above the levels of the 1950s. Nor is it clear that the federal government deserves much credit for the recent decline.
Accomplishment number 43 is “Expand job training and placement.” Federal job training must be a big success because the feds have created more than a hundred different training programs since the 1960s — most of which have been abolished or renamed after their failure became undeniable. And there is no learning curve: the spirit of the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) continues to permeate federal employment efforts.
Accomplishment number 38 is “Make government more transparent to the public.” I trust that none of the professors who applauded that accomplishment has ever filed a Freedom of Information Act request with a federal agency. It would have been more accurate to praise the feds for creating a façade of openness — behind which the old machinations continue to prevent people from learning how they are being misgoverned and how their tax dollars are being squandered.
Accomplishment number 39 is “Stabilize agricultural prices.” It is unlikely that many of the professors who picked this one ever lived on a bona fide farm. Shifts in federal policy — and dementia that occasionally breaks out in the halls of U.S. Department of Agriculture — have whipsawed crop prices time and again over the last 30 years. And studies have shown that the prices of unregulated farm products are actually less volatile than the prices of the crops with which government meddles.
“Reform taxes” is accomplishment number 48. Taxes were a lot simpler at the start of the 20th century — before the federal income tax — than at the end. Federal tax burdens on working-class Americans were much lower in 1950 than they are now. Yet any marginal decrease in the suicide rate among IRS auditees is all that is necessary for the professors to proclaim victory. “Improve government performance” is accomplishment number 41. Public opinion polls show much higher levels of distrust of Washington now than in 1950. There are far more agencies and far more boondoggles than there were two generations ago. What standard did Brookings use for improving government performance? Perhaps one implicit measure was the fact that the government hires far more professors and political scientists now than before — and thus its performance is automatically better.
“Reform welfare” is triumph number 42. There were far fewer people dependent on the federal government for their next meal in 1950 than there are now. The recent reform of Aid to Families with Dependent Children has reduced the rolls of one specific welfare program — but a deluge of other programs (like food stamps) has been created in the last half century. The number 1 item on the list is: “Rebuild Europe after World War II.” But World War II would have been much less devastating if the Allies had not done so much pointless damage during the war. The carpet bombing of German cities achieved nothing aside from satisfying the bloodlust of some British politicians. The Churchill-Roosevelt 1943 demand for unconditional surrender may have significantly prolonged the war and cost scores of thousands of American soldiers their lives. Almost half of Europe ended the war directly under Stalin’s thumb and did not begin vigorous rebuilding until after the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain
Also, recent studies have raised doubts about whether U.S. foreign aid after the war did more harm than good. German economic minister Ludwig Erhard — who shocked and angered Allied military governors by throwing out all their economic controls and committing Germany to a market economy — probably deserves more credit than anyone for the revival of Europe. (The “German model” of capitalism had at least as much influence on Europeans in the 1950s as the Hong Kong model had on Asians decades later.)
The 50th and final federal achievement is “Devolve responsibility to the states.” Perhaps the professors have been listening to too many political speeches. Washington is far more the center of the political universe now than it was in 1950. There are far more federal intrusions into state and local turfs than there were in Truman’s time.
Light concludes: “In this era of promises to create smaller, more limited government, it is useful to remember that the federal government appears to do best when it exercises its sovereignty to take big risks that no other actor could ever imagine taking.” It is true that, in recent years, “no other actor” except the feds would have even considered bombing Belgrade, invading Haiti, saving Somalia, nationalizing health care, and issuing a quarter million new pages of Federal Register notices since 1993 meddling with people’s private lives. But “big risks” are not big virtues — especially when the politicians and government officials almost never have any personal liability for the resulting carnage.
It would have been worthwhile for Brookings — or some other Washington institution — to create a list of the 50 biggest government screwups of the last century. If the professors who voted were well-informed, there would be a remarkable parallel between the list of screwups and the list of achievements — in part because so many of the “achievements” were primarily responses to messes that earlier government policies created.
Political scientists and historians are not policy wonks. They very likely have little or no awareness of what the government has actually done in the areas that they applaud. Yet there is shelf after shelf of General Accounting Office and Inspector General reports detailing the carnage from failed federal policies. Apparently all that matters is the applause lines from political speeches.
It is absurd to use a “hold harmless” clause in examining the impact of Big Government. We need an honest scorecard for Leviathan — one that will seek to ruthlessly balance purported benefits conveyed against damage wreaked.