The Revolt against Big Government

July/​August 1995 • Policy Report

In the freest country on earth, the nation whose founding wasdefined by Thomas Jefferson, 52 percent of Americans think thattheir government “has become so powerful that it poses athreat to the rights and freedoms of citizens.” Pollstersand pundits of the eastern establishment can’t believe it: theremust be something wrong with the poll. But other polls confirmthe news.

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

People know government is too big — too expensive, toowasteful, too intrusive, too incompetent — but they’re notpersuaded that there’s any alternative to particular governmentprograms. Disillusioned by government, they have become skepticalof all institutions and all systems, including the alternativesto government. One of the challenges for libertarians, and indeedfor all political leaders, is to channel that disillusionmentinto a healthy skepticism about politics and coercion rather thana dangerous nihilism that cynically rejects all order andauthority. Libertarians are well equipped to do that, since ourphilosophy offers a consistent alternative to almost every aspectof the modern Leviathan while adhering strictly to the ethicalprinciple of nonviolence. The great libertarian Leonard Read madeboth points in a simple book title: ANYTHING THAT’S PEACEFUL.

The 20th century has been the century of the state. After theglorious 19th century, a century in which liberalism produced unprecedentedpeace and economic progress in Europe, several factors — technologicaladvances in warmaking; the powerful arguments of Karl Marx andother collectivists; the anti‐​liberal ideas of militarism,nationalism, and racialism — combined to plunge the world into anightmare of war and statism, with a frightening array ofexpansive and intrusive regimes.

Communism, fascism, National Socialism, militarydictatorships, and apartheid were the most horrific of theexperiments in organized force. But the welfare states and socialdemocracies of the West also amassed more raw power andintervened in citizens’ lives more closely than governments hadever done before.

Those experiments have failed, and at the end of the 20thcentury there is growing hope that the century of the state maybe coming to an end. The United States never embraced statism asfully as other countries, so the failure of big government here hasbeen 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 isindicated by the 35 percent support Ross Perot had early in 1992, alongwith the 58 percent support for “a third party” in 1995polls. Despite the results of the 1994 election, Americans remain waryof the Republican party, partly because they fear the influenceof the religious right. Democrats can’t take much comfortfromthat because voters clearly aren’t keen on having secular‐​leftvalues forced on them by the federal government, either. Because Americansfeel they are faced with a choice between Democrats who want totax productive citizens to subsidize both a nonworking underclassand a new class of cultural elitists and Republicans who project animage of intolerance and don’t actually cut government, the keyto the political future may be whether people most fear theRainbow Coalition or the Christian Coalition.

The growing libertarian impulse in American politics offers away out of that bind. Libertarians reject the idea that eitherJesse Helms or Joycelyn Elders should be able to impose one setof moral values on 240 million people. The way to establish that principleis a dramatic reduction in the size, scope, and power of the U.S.government. At the federal level, that means returning to theConstitution of James Madison, a constitution that gave thefederal government only a few limited powers and left all other rightsand powers in the hands of the states or the people. But it meansmore than that. It means that after many powers and programs aredevolved to the state level, they should be further devolved tothe individual. Ultimately we don’t want state legislaturesmaking our decisions for us any more than we want Congress doingso. As free and responsible people, we should demand our right tomake our own decisions.

This is a program more radical than either the Republicans orthe Democrats have offered to the American people. And the timeis right. Americans have seen the failure of big government. They learnedin the 1960s that governments wage unwinnable wars, spy on theiropponents, and lie about it. They learned in the 1970s thatgovernment management of the economy leads to inflation, unemployment,and stagnation. They learned in the 1980s that government’s costand intrusiveness grew even as a succession of presidents ranagainst Washington and promised to change it. Now in the 1990sthey are ready to apply those lessons, to make the 21st centurynot the century of the state but the century of the freeindividual.

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