July/August 1995

The Revolt against Big Government

In the freest country on earth, the nation whose founding was defined by Thomas Jefferson, 52 percent of Americans think that their government "has become so powerful that it poses a threat to the rights and freedoms of citizens." Pollsters and pundits of the eastern establishment can't believe it: there must be something wrong with the poll. But other polls confirm the news.

A nation born in libertarian revolution is once more outraged at the size and power of government. The skepticism about power that reawakened in the 1960s is now reaching critical mass.

People know government is too big — too expensive, too wasteful, too intrusive, too incompetent — but they're not persuaded that there's any alternative to particular government programs. Disillusioned by government, they have become skeptical of all institutions and all systems, including the alternatives to government. One of the challenges for libertarians, and indeed for all political leaders, is to channel that disillusionment into a healthy skepticism about politics and coercion rather than a dangerous nihilism that cynically rejects all order and authority. Libertarians are well equipped to do that, since our philosophy offers a consistent alternative to almost every aspect of the modern Leviathan while adhering strictly to the ethical principle of nonviolence. The great libertarian Leonard Read made both points in a simple book title: ANYTHING THAT'S PEACEFUL.

The 20th century has been the century of the state. After the glorious 19th century, a century in which liberalism produced unprecedented peace and economic progress in Europe, several factors — technological advances in warmaking; the powerful arguments of Karl Marx and other collectivists; the anti-liberal ideas of militarism, nationalism, and racialism — combined to plunge the world into a nightmare of war and statism, with a frightening array of expansive and intrusive regimes.

Communism, fascism, National Socialism, military dictatorships, and apartheid were the most horrific of the experiments in organized force. But the welfare states and social democracies of the West also amassed more raw power and intervened in citizens' lives more closely than governments had ever done before.

Those experiments have failed, and at the end of the 20th century there is growing hope that the century of the state may be coming to an end. The United States never embraced statism as fully as other countries, so the failure of big government here has been less stark. But the problems are no less real:

  • an arrogant elite in Washington that presumes to make decisions for 240 million Americans;
  • a crushing tax burden;
  • schools that don't educate;
  • tens of thousands of pages of new regulations every year, strangling businesses and ensnaring innocent people in a web of paperwork;
  • a Social Security system headed for the biggest bankruptcy in history;
  • a $200 billion military establishment designed to protect us from . . . what?
  • a citizenry increasingly dependent on government benefits;
  • crumbling families;
  • growing restrictions on our property rights and civil liberties;
  • economic growth that seems ever slower for most Americans;
  • in short, agovernment grown so powerful, so removed from the people, so all-pervasive that 52 percent of Americans say they fear it.

The level of resistance to the political establishment is indicated by the 35 percent support Ross Perot had early in 1992, along with the 58 percent support for "a third party" in 1995 polls. Despite the results of the 1994 election, Americans remain wary of the Republican party, partly because they fear the influence of the religious right. Democrats can't take much comfortfrom that because voters clearly aren't keen on having secular-left values forced on them by the federal government, either. Because Americans feel they are faced with a choice between Democrats who want to tax productive citizens to subsidize both a nonworking underclass and a new class of cultural elitists and Republicans who project an image of intolerance and don't actually cut government, the key to the political future may be whether people most fear the Rainbow Coalition or the Christian Coalition.

The growing libertarian impulse in American politics offers a way out of that bind. Libertarians reject the idea that either Jesse Helms or Joycelyn Elders should be able to impose one set of moral values on 240 million people. The way to establish that principle is a dramatic reduction in the size, scope, and power of the U.S. government. At the federal level, that means returning to the Constitution of James Madison, a constitution that gave the federal government only a few limited powers and left all other rights and powers in the hands of the states or the people. But it means more than that. It means that after many powers and programs are devolved to the state level, they should be further devolved to the individual. Ultimately we don't want state legislatures making our decisions for us any more than we want Congress doing so. As free and responsible people, we should demand our right to make our own decisions.

This is a program more radical than either the Republicans or the Democrats have offered to the American people. And the time is right. Americans have seen the failure of big government. They learned in the 1960s that governments wage unwinnable wars, spy on their opponents, and lie about it. They learned in the 1970s that government management of the economy leads to inflation, unemployment, and stagnation. They learned in the 1980s that government's cost and intrusiveness grew even as a succession of presidents ran against Washington and promised to change it. Now in the 1990s they are ready to apply those lessons, to make the 21st century not the century of the state but the century of the free individual.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.