Arnold Kling  

What Went Wrong?

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In a somewhat melancholy 4th of July essay, Canadian libertarian Pierre Lemieux writes,


How could a country founded on the ideal of individual liberty, with a state devoted to the mission of protecting it, slide down the road to tyranny as fast as, and sometimes faster than, other countries? [Public Choice theory] suggests some explanations. With hindsight, the Founders probably did not take seriously enough the danger of the state, as illustrated in Madison’s argument for a federal government that would be kept in check by the States and the will of the citizens. Perhaps the state is so dangerous that trusting it with any glorious mission is looking for trouble, even if this mission is the protection of liberty.

Based on my reading of Howe's What Hath God Wrought, I would suggest that the growth of government was probably inevitable. The Reform impulse was there from the very beginning, and the opposing limited-government impulse was heavily entangled with slavery, which put it on the wrong side of history.

During the 1815-1848 period that Howe chronicles, the Reform impulse stayed mostly outside of government. In a rural, religious society, the Revival was for reformers a more effective tool than government. Howe points out that political conventions began as imitations of Revival meetings, an origin that will be easy to appreciate when we observe the conventions in the coming months.

The way I look at it, the takeover of government by the Reform impulse took place in a series of lurches. The Civil War, which broke the power of the South and states' rights, was one such lurch. The two World Wars also were lurches. Although there was some retrenchment after each of those three wars, their general effect was to set precedents for government expansion. As libertarians are wont to say, war is the health of the state.

Two other lurches took place as result of political landslides. Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930's and Lyndon Johnson in 1964-65 moved the country in the Reform direction. Perhaps an Obama landslide would to something similar, although I have doubts.

I believe that until the late 1960's, centralization and concentration of power were the trend in media, business, and government. In business, and especially in media, that trend has reversed over the past forty years. But concentration of government power has continued to increase. I believe that this is an anomaly, and that at some point the contradiction between the technology trend and the government trend will assert itself. Just as we are seeing sharp declines in the proportion of people who read newspapers and watch network television, I expect to see less support for centralized government. That is my vague, technology-based libertarian hope.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Johan Eriksson writes:

I agree on the technological trend "implying" less government, but there seems to lie a threat in this trend too. Governments, having starting to realise this, are struggling to regulate this technology, increase its surveillance powers and so on. Times of large technological changes are potentially also times of significant political change and it can easily strike both ways.

The advent, a century ago (more or less), of one-to-many mass media seems to have allowed both a fuller totalitarianism, and freer information gathering in different societies. What determines which way a society head?

Matt writes:

The historical trend is rebellion against central government. Arnold is right here.

Now, as we Americans rebel, we will see shadows of global government appearing on the horizon.

Dr. T writes:
Just as we are seeing sharp declines in the proportion of people who read newspapers and watch network television, I expect to see less support for centralized government.
I do not see nearly as much correlation here as you. The young people I know, who love Facebook, YouTube, weblogs, and cable TV are not disowning or disparaging centralized government. The Internet Age has shown them the absurdities of 50 state governments and thousands of local governments having different laws, rules, and regulations on every conceivable aspect of life. The Internet Age's young adults and teens are more likely to favor centralized and unified systems (just as they favor browser standards and document standards). My prediction is that by 2050 we will have much weaker state governments, and our federal government will resemble China's. (This is slightly different from Arnold Kling's prediction of China and the U.S. converging by 2050. I think China will get worse and we'll get worse faster.)
Snark writes:

Tinbergen’s hypothesis has regained its credibility. The world’s leading economies are increasingly moving towards convergence.

Ajay writes:

Glad to see you say this, Arnold, mirroring some thoughts of my own, though I'm more optimistic about a libertarian future than you are. The history of the twentieth century is one of competition trumping central planning and that lesson will only be amplified by the nature of the technology we're creating. If you thought the 20th century was one of unimaginable change, you ain't seen nothing yet, as it's only going to keep accelerating. We just gotta hope we don't speed right off a cliff somewhere. All that said, I wonder if the last century could have been much more decentralized but wasn't only because of the overuse of overblown concepts like economies of scale, that are excuses for centralization. It will be interesting to do the math someday and figure out to what extent the mass centralization of power in the 20th century was justified by real economizing and to what extent was it just a power grab by various elites, rationalized by the intellectual fabrications of economics professors and socialists and rubber-stamped by dimwit investors. I suspect a thorough investigation will find that much of it was the latter rather than the former. Aah, I guess the kings of the past used religion to achieve the same effect and the elites of the future will no doubt find some new dogma with which to accrue power and hold the masses back.

Adam writes:

I have always thought that technology, through communication and transportation, will eventually make national boundaries all but irrelevant. The state won't go quietly into the night, though, and we may yet see some bloody battles. But just like the industrial wave destroyed the agricultural, so too will the information age destroy the industrial. Decentralisation is the real power of the information age, in contrast to the centralisation of the industrial.

Kurbla writes:

One of the results of the technological progress is availability of always more dangerous weapons for always lower prices. And which kind of society can survive cheap technology able to provide anyone with weapons of mass destruction? Not the libertarian one, I'd say.

dearieme writes:

After the adoption of the Constitution, the two events that made the USA were the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War. Both were unconstitutional.

liberty writes:

I blame FDR and the public which let him violate just about every article in the constitution, and enact myriad legislation - every one of which was unconstitutional - all within a matter of weeks. Before that the government had slipped into unconstitutional activity, but only in a few limited areas. After that, the constitution was a joke.

Snark writes:
After the adoption of the Constitution, the two events that made the USA were the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War. Both were unconstitutional.

True enough. Concerning the unconstitutional prosecution of the Civil War (particularly with regard to suspension of habeas corpus), Lincoln attempted to maneuver within the spirit rather than the letter of the law, saying, in effect, that more scoundrels than honest men sought refuge under it. Noteworthy in itself is the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation (at least within those slave states which had not yet seceded from the Union) was also considered unconstitutional.

All things legal aren't always proper.

Pedant writes:

Technology lets government grow.

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