Alex Massie

American Exceptionalism & the Decline of Limited Government

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Via Megan McArdle, a sentence to ponder from Tyler Cowen:

One implication [of this book] is that the United States kept "small government" for an artificially long period of time, due to North-South splits and the resulting inability to agree on what a larger government should be doing.

I suspect there's something to that. The realignment of American politics over the past 40 years has created coherent parties that, while disagreeing on the details, agree that the Federal government needs more power. Republicans may pay lip-service to federalism but their record in office tells a different story. It was a Republican President (George W Bush) that gave new powers to a federal department of education his party once wanted to abolish and a Republican Congress that passed a major new prescription drug benefit for seniors and it was a Republican-run Department of Justice that, inter much alia, consistently violated the Constitution's Commerce Clause.

The long, slow death of Jim Crow was welcome and necessary, but among its consequences was this political realignment. A Democratic Congress would no longer be held hostage by its own southern wing and the post-1968 realignment made a Republican Congress feasible and, with Civil Rights passed, removed a good deal of the most stubborn opposition to Washington's encroachment.

But I wonder if other factors also played a part in creating the American tradition, now much reduced, of limited government. Firstly, and most prominently, conquering the west. A country busying itself with the business of expansion had little sympathy for those that, in other countries, might have been considered "the left behind". The development of a distinctly American ethos prizing mobility and the opportunity of a fresh start could only be temperamentally ill-disposed to the idea of government-as-helper. Unhappy or unfulfilled or unsuccessful in the east? Go West, young man.

And while the story of the west is both a matter of escaping authority for the freedom of the frontier and an attempt to impose order upon the wilderness* But having moved west in the first place, the pioneers were hardly likely to welcome the idea of a Washington takeover when their territories were admitted** as equal members of the Union. Western individualism may also have been diluted, but it remains more than just a folk memory (even if, on a per capita basis, federal spending is often high in the still-empty, non-California, west). And, of course, each of these new states nominated two men to serve in the United States Senate, from which perches they could resist further government encroachment. As a country, the United States was firmly established and growing older, but many of its constituent parts were still very young.

Just as US foreign policy took on an expansionist role almost as soon as the frontier was closed, so domestic policy began to move in that direction too. Whereas the United States had been open to mass immigration for as long as the west was still being settled, restrictions upon immigration arrived within a decade of Arizona and New Mexico joining the Union and making it a partnership of 48 states. Before that point, successive waves of immigration had made the establishment of a welfare state prohibitively expensive. Just as importantly, state-sponsored welfarism would be some kind of refutation of the American Idea and ethos. This wasn't what America was supposed to be about.

But with fewer potentially expensive immigrants to care for and with no fresh territory to conquer, a bigger role for government slowly began to seem more feasible. Add the calamity of the Great Depression and government intervention could seem a logical, even necessary, development. And as we know, it's much easier to turn a government tap on than off.

Finally, at least for now, welfarism and the growth of central government is, in some ways, a response to success, not failure. When a country is young or poor it (literally) cannot afford to trouble itself with such concerns. Each of these factors concentrates minds and suggests that government strictly limit itself to strictly defined necessities. But age, success and prosperity change the calculus and change the definition of necessity too. Thus, the case for health insurance reform rests upon the iniquity of a large and wealthy country failing to find ways of providing affordable health care for its poorest (or oldest) citizens.

Of course this can go too far and quickly reach the point of diminishing returns or, in other areas, a certain infantilising of the population. The America Toqueville saw has, in many ways, gone and we shouldn't always mourn its passing even if it's also understandable that some of us sometimes do. It's understandable that the appeal of that long-gone past still exerts a certain hold, not least because the frontier and its freedom remains the great American idea. 

Nonetheless, life was much shorter, more brutal, and vastly harder then. Progress, even though and sometimes because it comes on the back of government, remains progress. Which is another way of saying that even those of us who might desire more limited government should realise that our aims are, realistically, a matter of rolling back the state by degree not kind.

*The Indians might, understandably, see it differently.

**California 1850, Minnesota 1858, Oregon 1859, Kansas 1861, Nevada 1864, Nebraska 1867, Colorado 1876, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana & Washington 1889, Idaho & Wyoming 1890, Utah 1896, Oklahoma 1907, New Mexico & Arizona 1912

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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