A review of The Sixteen-Trillion Dollar Mistake, by Bruce S. Jansson and Dependent on D.C.: The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans, by Charlotte A. Twight
In attempting to analyze these two books, it is helpful to consider the political and theoretical assumptions on which they are based. Bruce S. Jansson, a professor of social policy at the University of Southern California and author of The Reluctant Welfare State (1996), accepts, absolutely and uncritically, the progressive belief in the rational state. He is convinced that government is the solution to our economic, social, and political problems. On the other hand, Charlotte A. Twight, an economics professor at Boise State University in Idaho and author of America's Emerging Fascist Economy(1975), is quite certain that government is the problem, and threatens to become a tyranny.
In attempting to grasp the differences in the intellectual perspectives of the authors, it is further helpful to contrast the two public men, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who gave political expression to these opposing viewpoints. It is safe to say that FDR transformed progressive, or historicist, thought into a successful political movement, which in principle mandated a public solution to every human problem. Reagan, however, in his memorable First Inaugural Address, insisted that government itself had become a problem, because it had ceased to be limited government, one in which the people themselves are primarily responsible for solving their own problems. Reagan raised a question of principle concerning the power, scope, and purpose of the national government in American life.
In posing the problem as he did, Reagan struck a responsive chord with the electorate. But he engendered the undying hostility of the defenders of the rational, or social welfare, state—the political legacy of FDR. Reagan seemed to deny that their conception of government, derived from the German or, more precisely, the Hegelian idea of the state, is fundamentally just, much less inevitable. His criticism was made on behalf of the people, and it was meant to force nothing less than a reappraisal of the meaning of the American social contract.
By the end of the 19th century, progressive intellectuals had accepted the view that history, not nature, provided the ground of meaningful knowledge. Moreover, they had targeted the economy as the driving force of history. By urging the expansion of government's role in the economy and society, they facilitated the transformation of the regime from a constitutional or limited government into a modern administrative state, in which the power of government cannot be limited because the social problems it will be called on to solve are unlimited. So understood, government is an ethical organization, an engine of compassion, which establishes a common ground of freedom by progressively redefining and securing human rights, now synonymous with social needs. Men will be free only when they are no longer "necessitous," as FDR liked to say.
In Roosevelt's view, individual freedom had brought about the catastrophe of the Depression. He believed that selfish behavior on the part of individuals and corporations had to give way to rational social action informed by a benevolent government. Consequently, the role of government would no longer be merely the protection of the natural, or political, rights of individuals. The old social compact, which limited the power of government to certain purposes and thus established the ground of an autonomous civil society and a free economy, no longer worked, according to Roosevelt. Those old restrictions had made sense when governmental tyranny was the problem; but that problem had been licked. The new problem was economic tyranny, the hidden or informal power of the "economic royalists"; and against that danger, countervailing governmental power was the solution.
Big Government not only protected the people's liberties, however. It was also the source of their liberties. In Roosevelt's creative reinterpretation of the social compact, spelled out in his 1932 Commonwealth Club address, he noted that "under such a contract, rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights. The task of statesmanship has always been the redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order." Rights come from the rulers, in other words, and they are accorded to the collectivity, to the people. Individual rights properly so called, grounded in nature and nature's God, do not exist. All rights are therefore entitlements promised by the government to the people, and all rights are based on social claims or needs recognized by government.
Roosevelt provided a new understanding of the meaning of freedom, rooted not in human nature but in the historical development of the social compact between the rulers and the ruled. To this process the economy is the key, inasmuch as it supplies the necessities upon which freedom depends. Thus Roosevelt could argue, "in our day these economic truths have been accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all…."
Ronald Reagan, by contrast, implicitly rejected FDR's new account of the social compact. In his First Inaugural Address, Reagan insisted, "we are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. …If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth." Reagan contended that government becomes a problem when it loses faith in the people. He noted, "It's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it."
In Reagan's view, it was this lack of trust in the people that posed the greatest danger to free government. The capacity of the people to govern themselves was dependent upon their ability to conduct their own affairs. The intellectual and governing classes had assumed for too long that only the rational, administrative state—the knowledge elite—could manage the affairs of a modern nation. "We've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule," Reagan noted, "that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?" Reagan succeeded in mobilizing a powerful sentiment against the perceived excesses of Big Government. In doing so, he revived the debate over limited government. In his last State of the Union message, he noted that the "most exciting revolution ever known to humankind began with three simple words: 'We the People,' the revolutionary notion that the people grant government its rights, and not the other way around."
The gulf between the philosophical assumptions of Roosevelt and Reagan virtually precludes the possibility of a dialogue, as the books under review make clear. The quarrels between the defenders and opponents of the modern state have attained the status of religious disputation. It's not surprising, therefore, that the authors of these books are in complete disagreement about whether government is the problem, or the solution to our problems. Furthermore, they disagree over the meaning of freedom and its importance. They cannot even agree on what constitutes a tyranny.
Bruce Jansson, like Roosevelt, believes that the state is an ethical organization. For him, the government of a modern democratic state simply could not become a tyranny. Charlotte Twight is persuaded that the federal government is systematically establishing a tyranny through its power to regulate and control the economy and society. In her view, government is the problem because it has usurped power that should reside in the people. She avers, "the shift from personal autonomy to dependence on government is perhaps the defining characteristic of modern American politics. In the span of barely one lifetime, a nation grounded in ideals of individual liberty has been transformed into one in which federal decisions control even such personal matters as what health care we can buy—a nation now so bound up in detailed laws and regulation that no one can know what all the rules are, let alone comply with them."
Twight documents in great detail the "evolution of federal power over fundamental aspects of our lives—our education, our income, our retirement security, our health care, our privacy." Perhaps most important is her trenchant argument that greater dependency has not only made us less free but also less secure. She shows that the growth of the administrative state has undermined the rule of law, which makes precarious the exercise of every right. "[A] vast web of legal rules now enmeshes Americans in a tangle of law so complex, so contradictory, so uncertain, that most of us can no longer either understand or comply with it," she notes. "As federal laws overseeing nearly every aspect of human conduct increasingly invite selective enforcement and discretionary interpretation, businesses routinely channel financial support to both major political parties in hopes of buying protection." Ironically, then, "today's profusion of statutory laws and administrative regulations insures that Americans now are ruled by the arbitrary power of men, not by knowable law."
Jansson assumes that only the state can establish the conditions of social justice. It is not surprising that such justice demands nothing less than the equitable redistribution of wealth, presupposing nearly absolute governmental control of the economy. Every argument, every fact, is subordinate to his fundamental assumption, that only government can act in an ethical manner. Consequently, when he is critical of government it is because it has not used its taxing power in a socially responsible way. "Wasted resources," he argues, "diminish attempts to build a just society by taking resources from the people who most need them and placing these assets in the hands of military contractors, the affluent, special interests, and corporations." In short, he contends that "the pattern of waste institutionalized since the 1930's"—$16 trillion worth, he estimates—"has harmed millions of people by depriving them of child care, education, housing, adequate public transportation, clean environments, and other basic amenities—deprivations that are likely to continue if the government continues to waste resources at an equivalent pace." Like Roosevelt, Jansson subordinates everything, including individual freedom, to his view of social justice as enforced by the state.
Like Reagan, Twight understands freedom in opposition to dependency upon government. She insists, "if we are to hope for a future blessed with civil liberty, private property rights, free markets, and personal autonomy, it is imperative that we understand what has happened, and how it has happened." Her book shows how the Progressives worked diligently to expand the modern state's power and legitimacy. For that reason, she notes, "generations of young people have been systematically stripped of the intellectual tools that would enable them to defend the institutions crafted by the Framers of our Constitution." Nor is she sanguine about the possibility of reversing the growing dependency upon government. But in this bracing and important book, she refuses to despair. "We have underestimated," she concludes, " the talent and tenacity of those who seek to make dependents of us all. If liberty is to grow again in America, we must, like those who signed the Declaration of Independence, choose to commit 'our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor' to that noble effort."