Most Americans don’t like big government. Moreover, polls show that the number of people expressing a preference for smaller government has only been growing in recent decades. So why does our government keep expanding?
In his new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? journalist W. James Antle III tries to answer that question. He also gives some recommendations on how to start shrinking government back down again.
Antle sticks to his comparative advantage: reporting. He steers clear of academic ideas about the role of government in a just society. He painstakingly documents the problems caused by big government—problems that will trouble Americans of many different ideological stripes.
In the first seven chapters of Devouring Freedom, Antle looks at how we got to where we are today. Americans instinctively mistrust big government and vote only for candidates who preach fiscal restraint. George W. Bush said he would “keep fiscal sanity in the budget”(160). Obama pledged to halve the federal deficit. Antle argues that while Americans love that type of rhetoric, they don’t want their own tangible benefits being cut. He calls this “selective anti-statism” (24) and points out how detrimental it is to any efforts to shrink government.
Both major parties, not just the Democrats, are to blame for the way our freedom has been devoured. Antle writes, “The GOP is supposed to stand for freedom, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government. At crucial times, it has done anything but that” (41). Republicans face tremendous pressure to be “team players” and fear losing reelection. For example, Paul Ryan is one of the Republican’s most vocal opponents of unsustainable spending. Yet he voted for No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and TARP.
At the end of chapter two, Antle briefly addresses the influence of Libertarian voters, basically to say that they are a divided group. Considering the increasing number of self-identified Libertarians, he might have given this topic more attention.
Antle argues that Republicans face a great deal of pressure from the main stream media, which still plays an important role in shaping public opinion. Republicans who cut spending are demonized while those who preserve entitlements are fawned over and labeled “courageous.”
A major threat of big government is that it begets more big government. “The more our lives are subsidized by the government, the more say the government has over our lifestyles” (79). An important argument for Mayor Bloomberg’s recent attempt to restrict the sale of larger sizes of sodas was the cost of obesity to taxpayers. Antle points out that the government could make similar economic arguments about a wide range of personal matters.
Antle devotes a chapter to the intermingling of big government, big labor, and big business. The government boosts unions in two ways: “indirectly, by promising to eliminate secret ballots organizing elections; and directly, by increasing the size of the public sector, whose unionized employees are increasingly the face of organized labor” (98). Antle gives particular attention to green-energy enterprises, the profits of which go to individuals (often campaign donors) and losses to taxpayers. Leftists see these ventures as “philanthropy” (105). On the conservative side, business ventures connected to national security get the same treatment.
One of the most interesting sections of Devouring Freedom is Antle’s nuanced chapter on Obamacare. He points out that it was “the most conservative bill that could have passed under the circumstances” (113). In several ways, Republicans opened the door for Obamacare themselves. They never presented a politically viable free-market alternative. When in power, they did nothing to rein in health care spending. Past unsuccessful Republican-sponsored health care bills have even included the individual mandate, a concept that should be anathema to supporters of limited government. In the 2012 election cycle, Republican candidates promised to try to repeal Obamacare, but they could not point to the failures in Massachusetts—the only real-world example of a system like Obamacare—because Mitt Romney was their presidential nominee.
Antle points out that government involvement in health care is particularly dangerous because it has made Americans comfortable with huge levels of federal spending. It also makes them dependent on government for a very important area of their lives.
In chapter eight, Antle looks at the three major attempts to reduce the size of government—the “Do-Nothing” Congress of 1947-48, the Reagan revolution, and the Republication takeover of 1994. While the Republican Party has many short comings, it did spearhead each of these three attempts.
In the wake of the New Deal, the Congress of 1947-48 was able to pull America back from becoming a full-scale European-style welfare state. They did this mostly by abolishing programs outright. The Reagan revolution and the Republican takeover preferred to focus on reducing spending. This helped for a while, but eventually spending increased again. Antle draws this lesson: “Government programs are like weeds. If they are merely trimmed, they will grow back. They must be uprooted when possible” (142).
Despite all they did to protect freedom, the Republicans of the Congress of 1947-48 lost their majority in the next election. The Republicans of the subsequent two attempts to reduce the size of government won reelection—this probably tells us all we need to know about why government is so big.
In chapter nine and much of chapter ten, Antle looks at recent political history, from the rise of the Tea Party through the sequester. Antle was reporting from Washington during this period, and some of his writing here becomes overly detailed and “in the weeds.” The average reader might find this section hard to follow.
Devouring Freedom ends by urging supporters of smaller government to think carefully about their strategy. They must create constituencies for limited government and look for quality candidates to articulate their views. Moreover, Republicans should not “measure their commitment to national defense in dollars any more than they would so measure their commitment to education or health care” (185). Antle acknowledges that it will be harder and more painful to reduce the size of government now than it was even twenty years ago, but that does not mean it is impossible. His book provides an arsenal of facts and arguments for those ready to go out and win back the freedoms that big government has devoured.
Emma Elliott Freire is an American writer living in England. Taft stamp image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.