Bush Swells the State
As the war on terror drags on and on, saecula saeculorum, many people calling themselves libertarians have decided that it’s not such a bad thing after all.
(The pundits calling themselves conservatives were among the first enlistees, and the left, as might be expected, is all for it too.)
What, some libertarians ask, is the point of government if not to bomb those who would threaten our safety? The trouble is that real life works a little differently from the civics-text ideal of government. Government uses war--and sometimes foments it--in order to expand its power over its own people and/or to expand its imperial reach, even as it prohibits private-sector efforts that might actually bring about more security (in this case, armed pilots).
"Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded," wrote
That’s also why the founders tried to make it very difficult for the
But enough of theory and history. Look at the current reality. Bin Laden is still at large, and airlines are still prohibited from securing their property from hijack threats, but big government is growing at rates not seen since
The Bush administration is engaged in an incredibly dangerous spending spree, beyond that which the Republicans would ever tolerate if undertaken by a Democrat. If it took a Nixon to go to China, it takes a Bush to manufacture annual double-digit wealth transfers from the private to public sector, much of which is being spent on foreign aid, domestic surveillance, public-private partnerships, and the construction of ever more weapons of mass destruction--all of which are being paid for through debt and inflation and creating a Keynesian-style “recovery.”
From October 2001 to March 2002, federal outlays were up by $60 billion over the same period the previous year. In this time period, the federal government, the one we all learned to love so much, has somehow managed to burn through fully $1 trillion in wealth formerly owned by the private sector. As for revenue, it is down from last year by $44 billion, netting a deficit of $129 billion. All told, annual government spending is growing right now at an astonishing 8 percent rate. (All this data comes from the latest reports from the Congressional Budget Office.)
Taking a broader look, spending on government programs from 1999 to 2003 will have increased 22 percent (in inflation adjusted dollars), according to a new analysis by the Washington Post. Measured against the GDP, total federal spending will soar to 18.5 percent in these three years. Spending rose 9 percent in the last two years of the
This spending is only the beginning. These figures do not include proposed spending increases after 2003, which dwarf any proposals made before last year. During the stimulus debate, no Democrat dared suggest spending near this level. If
Among the most odious of single ticket items is the $500 million that the Bush administration is planning to spend on rebuilding the destruction wrought by expensive U.S. bombs on Afghanistan (millions of which have already been wasted). This destroy-and-build spending has become a regular feature of
Inevitably, of course, Congress sees the main chance here and plans to not only give
|Selected Countries||Military Budget|
The spending side of the equation understates the problem because it doesn't reflect the increased power of government law-enforcement agencies. The threat to civil liberties is growing by the day. The war has been used to justify egregious forms of new protectionism on steel and lumber, adding to already existing trade barriers that are raising prices on the American consumer. All the old problems of regulation and social engineering have been tabled or even made worse for the duration of the war.
We have new agencies in place promising to do what the old agencies did not and could not do. Will normalcy return after the war is over (if it ever ends)? Not if the partisans of power get their way. As Mises wrote in 1919: “From the beginning the intention prevailed in all socialist groups of dropping none of the measures adopted during the war after the war but rather of advancing on the way toward the completion of socalism.”
Back in October,
This is hardly the first time that a war has fueled the growth of Leviathan.
Now, in all the commentary on this amazing budget debacle, people speak as if the decision to spend 10 or 20 percent more this year than last is purely a matter of governmental discretion, as if the only limit to government expansion should be the good will of the political class. There was a time when this was not the case. The Constitution once restricted power. The federal government couldn’t tax individuals directly. It couldn’t inflate the dollar because we were on a gold standard. There was no central bank that could print whatever the government wanted to spend.
What restricts government power today? For the most part, it is public opinion. That’s where libertarians and conservatives can play an important role in drawing attention to the lies of government, the dangers to liberty that war brings with it, and the real aims of the political class. Not to do that, and to instead celebrate the largest expansion of government in the lifetimes of anyone under 36, is to betray a kind of public trust. It is to discredit every slogan about “limited government” that has been advertised by pressure groups for decades. It’s one thing for the Republicans in office to do that. But why should intellectuals go along?
The meltdown of liberty can be stopped. But it won’t be stopped until those who understand the problem speak out courageously against the clear and present danger, the state at war. It is a danger even if the state wins. As Mises says: “no citizen of a liberal and democratic nation profits from a victorious war.”