SINCE THE OUTBREAK OF WORLD WAR I IN 1914, there has been an ominous growth in governmental power and intervention not only in the United States but practically all over the world. Woodrow Wilson once declared: “The history of liberty is the history of limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it.” This ought to be self-evident. The greater the area of human conduct controlled by government, the smaller the area left to the individual’s own control. The greater the government’s power to forbid and restrict, the smaller the individual’s power to choose for himself.
The growth of governmental power may be measured in terms of dollars spent, bureaucrats employed, or spheres of activity controlled.
In 1914 the Federal Government was spending only $725 million a year; in fiscal 1970 it is spending $195 billion a year—269 times as much.
In 1967 the number of Federal civilian employees totaled 2,877,000; the number of State and local employees 8,898,000, bringing the number employed in all government units up to 11,775,000.
In 1954 the Hoover Commission found that the Federal Government embraced no fewer than 2,133 different functioning agencies, bureaus, departments, and divisions. As Federal expenditures have more than doubled since 1954, and the number of Federal employees increased by 25 per cent, the present agency count may now exceed 2,500.
This estimate would be warranted by the known proliferation of Great Society agencies. One calculation, in 1967, counted more than 100 new Federal programs enacted by Congress since 1955; but this count was soon left far behind. In December, 1968, a departing White House aide, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., described by the New York Times as “President Johnson’s man Friday in nurturing the Great Society,” said in an interview that President-elect Richard M. Nixon would find that a tenfold growth had occurred in government activities since he left the government in January, 1961. “There were about 45 domestic social programs when the Eisenhower Administration ended,” said Mr. Califano. “Now there are no less than 435.”
Even this count had been exceeded earlier in 1968, when Democratic Congressman William V. Roth, Jr., and his staff were able to identify 1,571 programs, including 478 in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare alone, but concluded that “no one, anywhere, knows exactly how many Federal programs there are.” Even a prominent former interventionist confessed himself appalled by the “fantastic labyrinth of welfare programs” and the way in which the swift growth of Federal power is diminishing the significance of the individual citizen.
The growth of government power progressively breeds the growth of still more government power. The 86,000 permanent employees in the Department of Agriculture, to take but a single instance, all have a vital full-time economic interest in proving that the particular subsidies and controls they were hired to formulate and enforce should be continued and expanded. What chance does the individual disinterested citizen have—even if he has time to master the facts about the agricultural programs—in arguing against this particular bureaucratic army of 86,000?
The life of the citizen as worker, employer, enterpriser, investor, or consumer is controlled by scores of Federal agencies. Outstanding among them are the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Labor Relations Board. All these agencies issue rules and regulations, grant licenses, issue cease-and-desist orders, award damages, and compel individuals and corporations to do this or refrain from that. They often combine the functions of legislators, prosecutors, judges, juries, administrators. Their decisions are sometimes capricious, arbitrary, and unauthorized even by existing law. Yet when they inflict injury on corporations or individuals, or deprive them of constitutional liberties and legal rights, appeal to the courts is often difficult, costly or impossible.
The steady expansion of governmental powers also breeds nepotism and corruption in government and helps those already in power to entrench themselves—to prolong or perpetuate their hold on power. A New York Times survey of patronage in the city and State (June 17, 1968) found that “patronage has vastly expanded in the last several decades because of the tremendous growth of government, spiraling government spending, and the expansion of government’s discretionary powers to regulate, control and supervise private industry.”
Yet arbitrary government power is being multiplied daily by the now practically unchallenged assumption that wherever there is any problem of any kind to be solved, government is the agency to step in and solve it. Government lawmakers or officials either already have or demand the power to tell us just how much oil or sugar we may import, just how many acres we may plant to what crops, just how foodstuffs should be packed and labelled, just how steel and copper and drugs should be priced, just what interest rates should be charged and how they should be calculated, just how automobiles should be made, just what kind of artificial eyes should be permitted, just what one group of people must do and another group must not do, just what groups should be subsidized, and by how much, and just which groups should be forced to subsidize them.
Should anybody be surprised that there has been an appalling growth of crime, an outbreak of riots and a breakdown of law enforcement? The more things a government undertakes to do, the fewer things it can do competently. When the government tries to do everything it must do everything badly.
The essential function of the State is to maintain peace, justice, law, and order, and to protect the individual citizen against aggression, violence, theft, and fraud. More than a century ago Herbert Spencer was pointing out that “in assuming any office besides its essential one, the State begins to lose the power of fulfilling its essential one.” As more and more functions are assumed by the State, the truth of this becomes more and more obvious.
This brings us back once again to the warning of the Swedish economist, Gustav Cassel, more than 30 years ago:
The leadership of the state in economic affairs, which advocates of Planned Economy want to establish, is . . . necessarily connected with a bewildering mass of governmental interferences of a steadily cumulative nature. The arbitrariness, the mistakes, and the inevitable contradictions of such a policy will, as daily experience shows, only strengthen the demand for a more rational coordination of the different measures and, therefore, for unified leadership. For this reason Planned Economy will always tend to develop into Dictatorship.
In more concrete terms, the process usually runs like this: A hundred welfare programs, spending more and more billions, lead to chronic budget deficits, which lead to increase paper-money issues, which lead to higher prices. The government then denounces the sellers as “profiteers” and starts fixing ceilings on individual prices. Next it is led inevitably into the impossible task of trying to fix all prices and wages, which leads it to set up allocations and quotas of production for each producer and rationing for each consumer, and so to control of everybody’s means of livelihood and survival.
And as Alexander Hamilton once put it: “Power over a man’s subsistence is power over his will.”