I’m writing in the midst of a hiatus in the government shutdown — a three-week period, which, as Saturday Night Live joked, reduces the supposedly indispensable institution (for both the country and the whole world) to the level of a Hulu subscription. It’s on again, off again, and no one knows for sure what will happen. Even the president has suggested that he could keep the partial shutdown going for years.
What a remarkable decline and fall in reliability, status, credibility, and therefore public confidence in government. Only 8 percent of the American people today tell pollsters that they have confidence in government. This is down from 74 percent half a century ago. This is a dramatic decline, and it profoundly impacts the viability of government control going forward.
I’m thinking back to the prevailing attitudes 100 years ago. Reading journals and books on politics from 1900 to 1945 is like visiting another planet. Every perceived failing of society was said to be fixable by more government power. Government in those days was the answer to make society more safe, secure, stable, smart, sober, peaceful, pious, and healthy. It’s not only that this opinion existed; it’s that it was nearly unchallenged.
The idea was this: if government hires smart people, gains access to enough resources, and uses enough power, there is nothing it cannot accomplish. That attitude received a boost from the war powers of the Great War, which easily folded into the building of a total state that knew no limits to its powers. When the Great Depression hit, the answer seemed rather obvious: more government power and planning. The Second World War further bolstered the attitude. If you want something done well, some epically important task to be accomplished to move history to a higher level of awesomeness, you had to turn to the state.
The arrogance of those days! Government was going to protect us cradle to grave. It would make the world safe for democracy. It would bring fairness to all labor contracts, safety to all buildings, and wellness to all health care. It would magically manipulate the money stock to end instability and guarantee growth. It was so confident in its ability to educate all young minds that school became compulsory, and remunerative work for teens declared illegal.
And in what might be the most absurd conceit in the grim history of government overreach, elites in America imagined that they could banish from the whole country the commercial production and consumption of all alcoholic beverages. To make darn sure they were successful, they even stuck the announcement in the U.S. Constitution alongside the guarantee of freedom of speech and religion.
Let’s just say that this didn’t work out as planned.
It’s not just Prohibition that failed. It’s the whole suite of programs for top-down control. You name it: education, health care, retirement savings, antitrust, financial controls, monetary policy, and anything else you can name. At best, the strategy of managing our lives from the center has been a disappointment. At worst, it’s been a catastrophic flop. Not even the wars worked; Vietnam was bad enough, but look today what the war power has done to the Middle East.
The problem is not a single program or regulation. It’s the complete paradigm of a state that knows no limits to its power. That paradigm has gradually faded. Another will take its place.
What are the reasons for this change?
First, there is the rather obvious fact that government management has failed to live up to its promise. People are far more likely to dread than appreciate any real-world contact with the state. Where would you rather be: the DMV or McDonald’s? The school-district office or a local bar? A military base or a car plant? The courthouse or the shopping mall? Want to deal with a government cop or a private security guard?
Second, private enterprise has turned out to produce far more amazing improvements in our lives; health, prosperity, education, transportation, security, and all the other “commanding heights” of life have been well-served by innovation stemming from entrepreneurship and commercial exchange. Pick your example, but a favorite one is how much transportation alone has improved with ride-sharing technology.
Third, a quiet intellectual revolution has been taking place in the postwar period, with generations of outstanding scholars having rediscovered, then improved, then propagated the insights of classical economics. To be sure, it is now conventional wisdom on the Left that this “neoliberal” intellectual shift is a result of an elite conspiracy dreamed up by billionaires and pushed by well-funded institutions and public intellectuals.
But there is a simpler explanation: the ideas of classical liberalism explain the world better than any alternative. Whether the intellectual change is the prime cause of the shift or incidental to it is unknowable. But this much is true: the shift in ideas is both real and necessary for a change in the paradigm.
We hear the creaking pain of what it is like to shift from one pattern of social management to another. No longer can politicians push 70-90 percent tax rates and not get immediate pushback. They try to tax gasoline to pay for a government plan to control the climate, and people hit the streets in protest. The old venues that once reliably celebrated the impositions of more control have lost credibility, with mainstream media approaching the disreputable status of government itself.
Nothing about this shift guarantees that it will be easy or even result in increased liberty, peace, human rights, or prosperity. But the trend toward a loss of confidence in public institutions does put a check on the plans of fanatics on the Left (more taxes!) and on the Right (buy American!). What neither side wants to admit, or even talk about, is the fundamental reality of all forms of government control. Governments always and everywhere rely on violence as a tool. Hulu has to persuade; the Department of Homeland Security does not.
David Hume was right to observe that every regime must ultimately rely on the consent of the governed. When that consent is withdrawn, its prevailing method of rule must shift. Shift toward what? That's the salient question. F.A. Hayek once defined the classical liberal agenda in the simplest possible way: to increase the voluntary means and reduce the violent means as much as possible. It’s a hope everyone can share. If these sporadic government outages, resulting entirely from mostly petty partisan fights, help foster that hope, they will have served the cause ably.