Higgs and the Expanding State

Robert Higgs, author and fellow of the Independent Institute has two excellent posts (here and here) on the underhanded creep of government. He asks, “What of any consequence remains beyond the state’s reach in the United States today? … We verge ever closer upon the condition in which everything that is not prohibited is required. Yet, the average American will declare loudly that he is a free man and that his country is the freest in the world.”

Part one of his two post series compares public perception of our freedoms to those under Mussolini and Hitler. Note that he is NOT implying that the United States government is like that of Mussolini or Hitler but that people react similarly (with indifference) as freedoms are eroded away in piecemeal. The post links to an excerpt of Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free:

This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remote

The slope is indeed slippery.

Higgs is well qualified to discuss government creep, having published numerous books on government expansion. His thesis is that crises allow for “temporary” increases in government authority that never reach their previous levels post crisis. This has certainly held true for the current financial crisis.

The public discourse rarely covers this side of the debate. New laws, regulations, and mandates are discussed as necessary solutions to newfound ills. Supporters of free-market, bottom-up solutions are caricatured as puppy-killers, in cahoots with big business. The reality is that they believe, as Russell Meade writes, “humanity’s most efficient method of solving problems is to nibble them to death rather than swallow them whole.

Higgs’s second post contains anecdotes that cover the arcane complexity of the federal code — all 24,000 pages of it. A separate document, the Federal Register, contains over 10,000 federal regulations. CEI’s Wayne Crews covers this here.

Do we really want to be like Europe?