By Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson
At a debate among the Republican presidential candidates in March, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas boiled down his campaign message to its essentials: “Here’s my philosophy. The less government, the more freedom. The fewer bureaucrats, the more prosperity. And there are bureaucrats in Washington right now who are killing jobs and I’ll tell you, I know who they are. I will find them and I will fire them.”
What was remarkable about this statement was how unremarkable it was. Cruz was not taking a radical position; he was expressing his party’s orthodoxy, using boilerplate language to signal that he understood the conservative movement’s core concerns. For years, his fellow Republicans have taken comparable stands. When Texas Governor Rick Perry got into trouble while making a similar pledge in a presidential candidate debate in 2011, for example, it was not because he promised to eliminate several federal agencies—Cruz wants to eliminate even more—but because he couldn’t remember all the particular agencies he wanted to jettison.
Even if the candidates making them are elected, specific promises about, say, closing major government agencies are bound to be broken, for reasons of simple practicality. As a debate moderator had pointed out to Cruz a few weeks earlier, for example, once he had eliminated the Internal Revenue Service, there would be nobody left to see that taxes were collected, which would pose something of a problem for the functioning of the government. But the spread of this sort of thinking in recent decades has had important effects nonetheless, contributing to increased hostility to government and a major retrenchment in government activities.
Many conservatives complain that this contraction has been too limited and that cutting back even further would unleash powerful forces in the U.S. economy and society that would help solve problems such as slow growth, stagnating incomes, low labor-force participation, and rising inequality. They tell a story about a bygone era of economic dynamism when men and markets were free—a laissez-faire Eden that was lost when progressive politicians such as Woodrow Wilson started using government power to try to “improve” things and ushered in a century of increasingly tyrannical government meddling that has led to a host of terrible outcomes.
The truth is almost precisely the opposite. The spread of capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries triggered innovation, growth, and economic progress, but so long as markets were relatively unconstrained, the scale and benefits of that economic dynamism were often limited, inconsistently delivered, unequally distributed, and too frequently unfairly captured by powerful private actors. It was the emergence in the first half of the twentieth century of a robust U.S. government willing and able to act boldly on behalf of the country as a whole that led to spectacular advances in national well-being over many decades—and it has been the withering of government capabilities, ambitions, and independence in the last generation or two that has been a major cause of the drying up of the good times.
There has been nothing inevitable about the trend toward weaker, less functional government; it has been driven by a relentless campaign over many decades to delegitimize the stronger U.S. government that did so much good earlier in the century. So the trend can be reversed. But it will take an equally persistent campaign in the opposite direction, devoted to reminding Americans of what they once understood so well: that a government capable of rising above narrow private interests and supporting broader public concerns is part of the solution, not the problem.
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