Why Guns Are Better Than Butter
11.21.08, 12:00 AM ET
“War is the health of the state,” wrote Randolph Bourne, horrified by World War I and its excesses. And that phrase has been used by libertarians and opponents of state power ever since, as a reason why war is a bad idea.
Certainly the experience of World War I–and, in America, the dramatic expansion of state government power under Woodrow Wilson, as documented in Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism–supports that argument. But subsequent history makes me wonder if war is really as healthy for the state as some other things that get less attention.
When Bourne wrote those words, war was the only accepted justification for massive government mobilization. But since then, things have changed.
Woodrow Wilson’s colossal expansion of government power faded soon after the war was over, and the 1920s were a period of minimalist government, ushered in by Warren Harding’s promise of a “return to normalcy.” Harding was swept to office on a wave of national disgust at Wilson’s excesses, and the country was anxious to leave those excesses behind.
But when the next national crisis struck–the Depression, under FDR–the U.S. got a massive expansion of government that, unlike Wilson’s, has remained with us to the present day. FDR’s policies may have extended the Depression, but what is clear is that when the Depression was over, the New Deal remained. There was no return to normalcy afterward.
Now we’ve had over five years of war in Iraq, finally winding toward a successful conclusion, and in the process have spent a lot of money and made some changes in the law. But the changes in the law are promised to be undone by President-elect Obama, and the amount spent in five years on Iraq has already been dwarfed by the $5 trillion dollar tab run up during this fall’s bailout-mania.
What’s more, there’s lots of pressure to pull our troops out of Iraq; Barack Obama was elected president largely on the strength of that sentiment, after all. While there may be some number of troops in Iraq for years to come, the Iraq War is pretty much over. By contrast, it’s a safe bet that whatever new social and regulatory programs are put in place as a result of the current economic situation, they will persist for decades. Ronald Reagan himself couldn’t get rid of the Department of Education, notwithstanding his campaign promise to do so.
Furthermore, war is politically risky in a way that new programs are not. Though people still speak of a decision to go to war as something done to enhance the political position of incumbent presidents, history doesn’t support that. Truman fought in Korea and lost the next election. LBJ had to give up the White House over Vietnam. George H.W. Bush won in Iraq and enjoyed 90% approval ratings but lost the next election anyway. And George W. Bush’s political position certainly doesn’t seem to have benefited from the invasion of Iraq; even in 2004, it was an electoral drag, and things only got worse.
By contrast, presidents who push big social programs generally get a political boost and–because the costs and disasters of social programs are less obvious than the costs of war–there’s seldom any real downside.
So the notion that war is the friend of big government seems questionable to me, based on things that have happened in the past century at least. Rather, it seems that economic crisis, and economic intervention, is the thing to worry about if you want to keep government under control. Which bodes poorly for current times, when the war’s won but the bailouts are coming fast and furious. Eternal vigilance–especially now.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee, and hosts Washington Watch on PJTV.com.
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