September 16, 2010

Changes within my lifetime...

Charles Murray, On Energetic Government and Unlimited Government:

... But where does David get the idea that the "energetic government" he lauds in the administrations of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln was more or less the same thing conceptually as "energetic government" now, on a somewhat smaller scale? A difference in kind has occurred, and it is reflected in difference in size.

Forget about the 19th-century budgets, which would make the comparison ludicrous. Instead, consider the federal budget in 1963, on the eve of President Lyndon Johnson's ascension to power. In 2008, dollars, as are all the numbers that follow, the federal government spent $782 billion that year, almost half of which went to defense. The entire federal government spent just $259 billion on domestic non-defense items (I exclude interest payments on the national debt). In 2008, while we were still under the compassionately conservative eye of President George W. Bush instead of the spendthrift liberals, the same domestic non-defense items amounted to $1.7 trillion. Shall we remove Social Security from that calculation? Then the numbers go from $150 billion in 1963 to $1.1 trillion in 2007—a sevenfold increase.

You don't increase spending by those amounts without changing the role of government in ways that go to the heart of the American project. That truth is reflected in the qualitative record. In 1963, 30 years after the New Deal started, the federal government still played little role in vast swathes of American life, from K-12 education to the way people went about providing goods and services to their fellow citizens. We can argue about which of the subsequent interventions were warranted and which were not, but not about this: The way that presidents and Congresses see their power to intervene in American life in 2010 is profoundly different from the way they saw it in 1963. In 1963, among mainstream Democrats as well as Republicans, it was accepted that an overarching purpose of the American Constitution was to limit the arenas in which government could act. Now, the recognition of that purpose has all but disappeared—in the executive branch, in the Supreme Court, and in Congresses controlled by Republicans as well as by Democrats. There has been big change, reflected in big government....
Posted by John Weidner at September 16, 2010 8:35 AM
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