It's all Roosevelt's fault

Geoffrey Manne —  3 July 2006

My friend Seth Weinberger over at Security Dilemmas has a great post on why the left is actually to blame for the post-9/11 national security apparatus it (and many others) hates so much.  Basically, it comes down to “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  When bigger government is your answer to every problem, don’t be too surprised when big government tries to actually solve every problem.  And, as Seth points out, in this regard, the right has happily capitulated (the Republicans are laughably far from being the party of Reagan anymore).  So for the moment the government is being enlarged in the service of the particular problems that the right (the party in power just now) wants to solve.  But the modern path to this ever-expanding use of power — the justification and the moral basis — was paved by the Big Government lefties (oh, sure, and Nixon.  But he was just ahead of his time).

So here’s my question (this version is really for the left, but there are analogues for the right):  Why, if “Big Oil,” “Big Pharma,” Wal-Mart and Microsoft are so scary, does it make sense to turn to the biggest of the big, the most oppressive of the oppressive, to constrain those other big baddies, to keep them from getting too big, too powerful?  Is there anyone who really has so much faith in our democratic process that despite, say, the legal monopoly on the use of force and the ability to print money, he is worried less about “Big Government” than about “Big Tobacco”?  I don’t get it.  Don’t get me wrong:  I realize the biggest of the big is a really effective hammer with which to pummel all those pesky nails.  But is it so hard to see the broader, bigger, long-term implications of consistently handing over that power to the government?

Geoffrey Manne


President & Founder, International Center for Law & Economics

2 responses to It's all Roosevelt's fault


    The myth of the left as the party of big government is belied by the past six or so years during which a cabal which once extoled the virtues of small government has in practice brought us anything but.

    Take the Medicare prescription drug fiasco for example:

    The question of whether Medicare reform will prove politically fruitful for Republicans is still open. But the question of whether it has proven to be an administrative nightmare is not. There were two paths open to Republicans if they had been interested in creating an administratively coherent system of paying for the prescription drugs of the elderly. One was to give the elderly nothing and insist that every person assume the full cost of his or her medication. The other was to have government assume responsibility for the costs of those drugs.

    It is significant that in America’s recent debates over prescription drugs, no one, not even the Cato Institute, argued that government should simply not be in the business at all. As a society, we accept — indeed, we celebrate — the fact that older people can live longer and better lives thanks to radically improved medical technology as well as awe-inspiring advances in pharmacology. A political party which consigned to death anyone who could not afford to participate in this medical revolution would die an early death itself.

    But Republicans were just as unwilling to design a sensible program as they were unable to eliminate the existing one. To prove their faith in the market, they gave people choices, when what they wanted was predictability. To pay off the pharmaceutical industry, they refused to allow government to negotiate drug prices downward, thereby vastly inflating the program’s costs. To make sure government agencies didn’t administer the benefit, they lured in insurance companies with massive subsidies and imposed almost no rules on what benefits they could and could not offer. The lack of rules led to a frustrating chaos of choices. And the extra costs had to be made up by carving out a so-called “doughnut hole” in which the elderly, after having their drug purchases subsidized up to a certain point, would suddenly find themselves without federal assistance at all, only to have their drugs subsidized once again at a later point.

    Caught between the market and the state, Republicans picked the worst features of each. No single human being could have designed a program as unwieldy as this one. It took the combined efforts of every faction in today’s conservative movement to produce a public policy so removed from common sense.

    From “Why Conservatives Can’t Govern” by Alan Wolfe


    Why is big government OK to those on the left? Because its their hammer…or so they’ve come to believe. They have no problems using “Big Enviros” to squash farmers in Eastern Washington or ranchers in Central Idaho. Nor do they have any problems using “Big Teachers Union” or any other of the “Big Allies”. I think your post is just one more way of commenting on the hypocrisy in politics.