How Strong Is the Case for Big Government?

The movement for smaller government must really be doing well, considering all the attacks it has generated of late. Journalists decry “austerity” and “slashed” government spending from Athens to Albany. President Obama seems to think he’s running against people who wish that (as he put it) “everybody had their own fire service.”

That’s how my book review in the November 2012 issue of Reason begins. I take a look at two new books from impressive authors making the case for big government: To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government, edited by Steven Conn with a lot of distinguished professors, and Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.

The professors tell a tale of a “Dickensian America” languishing in “semi-barbarism” (seriously) until the federal government took responsibility for dragging us out of the swamps and into civilized life. And Dionne frets that we are falling back into an era of “free-market fundamentalism” and a “radical form of individualism that … denigrates the role of government.”

So what’s my response? Read the review. But here’s a precis:

The case for big government should be cross-examined by looking at costs as well as benefits, risks as well as achievements, what is not seen along with what is seen, and the repeated horrors that have stemmed from leaving state power unconstrained.