Stuck With Big Government?

By John Samples

Many books decrying Big Government take the easy way out. They pretend that President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and various other demons have foisted burdensome regulations, unjust redistributions, and high taxes on the American people. We are not the problem, they are. W. James Antle III refuses to take the easy path in Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? If you are skeptical of Big Government and tired of polemics, Antle is for you.

Antle has a good background to write this book. He is a reporter working the DC beat whose writing appears in the American Spectator, the American Conservative, and the Daily Caller. Given his background, the book delivers what you would expect: a detailed account of the political struggles that built Big Government line by budgetary line. I appreciated these parts of the book: I had forgotten or never known aspects of these fights.

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Antle provides more than just the details. He struggles to understand the big picture of politics while looking at a few brushstrokes in one corner of a painting. His history of the expansion of the American state after the New Deal serves the reader well. Antle also has something new for those familiar with the era. His praise of the "Do Nothing Congress" of 1948-1949 is apt; I wish I had recognized its significance in my own writings.

Reviewers are often unfair. They wish the author had written the book they wanted to read and not the one he actually wrote. Judged by his own intentions, Antle has done a fine job. If I mention a couple themes that might have been included in this work, I hope I am not being unfair.

Big Government is more than taxing and spending, as important as those are. To his credit, Antle criticizes aspects of the surveillance state and defense spending, apt themes but perhaps not the normal fare for many of his readers. I would like to have seen more on how the feds try to manage the economy through tax preferences, loan guarantees, and a multitude of other obscure interventions. These interventions complicate the political task of controlling Big Government. Tax reform, for example, benefits the well-to-do voter who might be limited government's best hope at the ballot box. But these policies are part of the problem, in part because they do not seem to be part of Big Government.

The friends of limited government tend to blame politicians and the media for its popularity. They are imposing, as it were, a false consciousness on "the people." Tim Groseclose has shown that media bias does move public opinion to the left. However, as Antle notes, the most expensive welfare programs -- Social Security and Medicare -- have attracted strong support. Conservatives often complain about Medicare Part D, but over 80 percent of the public supported a prescription drug benefit in 1994, the year of the supposed revolution in favor of limited government. Given such support, it is surprising that another ten years would pass before a drug benefit became law.

I wish Antle had taken a closer look at Medicare Part D. Some experts say its reliance on market mechanisms have fostered lower costs and high client satisfaction. Is that true? Might policies like Medicare Part D be the "best we can do" given what voters overwhelmingly want?

Yet the popularity of these programs invites skepticism. Like Medicare and Social Security, the prescription drug law did not impose costs equal to its benefits. These programs are thus popular: they have delivered and promise to deliver trillions of dollars of benefits in excess of their costs. The government will not make good on those promises. When costs are greater than benefits for individual taxpayers, will the entitlement programs remain popular? Past polls do not matter. What citizens will think in the future does. At the same time, this illusion of a free lunch suggests "serving the check" for the meal will cut short the welfare state banquet. Perhaps. But it is far from certain that any politician will serve the check to 97 percent of the electorate.

Can Big Government be reined in or even ended? Antle is realistic, perhaps because he is a student of history. But history may suggest that the political regime founded by Franklin Roosevelt will end with a bang similar to the Great Depression or the Civil War. Few argue in favor of a catastrophe, but most voters both want spending and do not want higher taxes. Most creditors assume this electoral circle will be squared well before a crisis. But that confidence may be misplaced, and if so, what should proponents of limited government do in a crisis? Will they cast about for a few years as FDR did in the 1930s?

A Republican victory in 2016, even if that Republican is Rand Paul, will not fix our mess. Antle knows the difficulty of winning the war over the size and scope of government, but he offers some reasons for a measured optimism. Opponents of Big Government are better organized and more willing to fight Republican congressional leaders than in the past. The coming failure of the entitlement state may foster enough disappointment to call the welfare state into question. The Republican party itself should change and become a true party of limited government. In the end, Antle suggests, nothing can replace continuing political engagement.

Those who know James Antle's journalism will not be surprised by the quality of this book. He engages the reader with a fluid style and broad knowledge. He does not duck the hard questions. As result, his book provokes more thought than anger, a selling point for the serious reader. Pushing back against a world of sound bites and silliness, Antle has made a strong case for a politically-informed libertarian conservatism.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute and the author of The Struggle to Limit Government.
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