The folks who oppose the TEA Party movement love to bring up some of its less logical members’ ill conceived demands to “keep government out of Medicare.” However, these demands perfectly sum up the will of the American populace as a whole, which tends towards a fickle ambivalence on what form it wants government to take. John Samples’ book The Struggle to Limit Government: A Modern Political History, tracks the history of that ambivalence.
The Struggle to Limit Government begins with a brief overview of progressivism leading up to Franklin Roosevelt. He and other progressives cloaked that ultimate big government program, Social Security, which currently accounts for about 20 percent of our national budget, behind an aura of personal responsibility. He argued, correctly as future would show, that once the wage earners were forced to buy into the system, benefits could never be cut, lest those who paid in would lose their investment. We continue to struggle with this problem today. Social Security was politically designed to persist, and it was designed well. As time went on, the program continued to increase through an ever-growing feedback loop; the benefits would increase shortly before elections, then taxes would necessarily increase once power was comfortably entrenched.
The next major wave of government growth came with Lyndon Johnson and his great society programs. LBJ saw government as a way to remake society, and the people went along. Republicans at the time saw little to gain from opposing governmental growth policies, as the growth benefited them as well, so they did not object to LBJ’s intentions to use government to achieve his goals. LBJ’s programs were bolstered by the enormous support that they provided to higher education, leading universities to be stacked with liberals supportive of his goals. Samples points out that the war in Vietnam served the same goals as the war on poverty at home- to remake society. Government continued to grow unabated.
Reagan’s policies represented a radical new kind of Republican; inspired by Goldwater, he ran on a platform of reforming the old system and actually shrinking government. He argued for cutting taxes first, on the theory that by starving the beast, reduced revenues would force government to contract. He was largely wrong, and his policies led to unprecedented borrowing, still a problem today.
However, Reagan was not a complete failure. His theories changed the public’s perception of government growth. Some of Samples’ most interesting anecdotes are the statements that pre-Reagan politicians made about government’s goals. LBJ, for example, openly called for equality “in fact,” that is, equality of both opportunity and outcome, something no modern politician could call for. Had it not been for Reagan, Obama’s famous answer to Joe the Plumber about “spreading the wealth around” would not have been likely to even raise eyebrows. Although government never actually shrank under Reagan, he did herald in an era of illegitimacy of government that even the most liberal candidates still attempt to give the appearance of embracing today, by claiming that their policies will lower taxes and shrink government. By offering reforms, though, Reagan was ultimately an upholder of the old system; his policies allowed big, centralized government to perpetuate.
Samples is not kind to the Republicans who followed Reagan. While the Gingrich revolution brought about significant change by forcing Clinton to moderate, it delegitimatized the movement as well. When Gingrich and Clinton forced showdowns that led to temporary government shutdowns, the people, comfortable in the booming ‘90’s, favored Clinton and abandoned Gingrich’s attempts to reduce spending. Bush, with his compassionate conservatism, failed to focus on spending much at all and grew government to unprecedented levels. Samples derides the Republicans for focusing on moral issues, rather than fiscal, and losing sight of the need to shrink government. Led by the moral majority, Republicans forced their own kind of progressivism; even the Iraq war, in its intent to remake Iraqi society, was paternalistic and progressive in nature.
This book provides a wealth of interesting, relevant information. While most political junkies will be familiar with the broad history, Samples breaks down the goals, incentives, and public reaction in great detail, allowing the reader to fully understand how government was made into the looming, centralized power that it is today. However, if I have one complaint about it, it is that this is not the sort of book that you can curl up and get lost in. It reads very much like a textbook, with a broad amount of information, but very little narrative flow to keep the reader engaged. The wealth of information makes it well worth the read, but slogging through it is likely to be difficult for the casual reader.
The book’s conclusion appears to break down to the fact that Americans, in their voting habits, simply cannot make up their minds about whether they want larger or smaller government. The common cliché of the citizen wanting government spending cut on everything but what is important to him is a true one. Neither party helps this issue, as both tend to offer their own takes on progressivism in efforts (sometimes misguided) to stay in power. It is our ambivalence, and give and take back, that keeps us on the path that we are on, and that ambivalence will have to change in order to end the struggle and truly limit government.
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