- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2000

Fans of Leviathan received a Christmas gift from the Brookings Institution. Brookings' Paul Light polled 450 politician scientists and historians to come up with a list of "Government's Greatest Achievements of the Past Half Century." Mr. Light has done some excellent work in the past but succumbed to his enthusiasm this time around. Mr. Light observed that the ratings clearly put the lie to the conventional wisdom that the federal government creates more problems than its solves. To the contrary, the ratings suggest that the federal government is fully capable of tackling important and difficult problems and succeeding.

The report is generating hosannas from the usual suspects. One newspaper headlined Washington Post columnist's David Broder's puff piece on the study: "On the Virtue of Big Government."

It is difficult to read the Brookings' government greatest hits list without bursting out laughing. The professoriate appears to have completely absolved government for any role in creating problems politicians later promised to solve.

For instance, achievement No. 3 is "promote equal access to public accommodations" and No. 5 is "reduce workplace discrimination." It was the federal government under President Woodrow Wilson who made odious Jim Crow laws the national standard. Shortly after Wilson took office in 1913, mass firings of black federal employees occurred. The chief federal revenue collector in Georgia announced: "There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro's place is in the cornfield." President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, by vesting power in labor unions and other organizations to run closed shops, also had a devastating effect on black employment.

Accomplishment No. 9 is "reduce the federal budget deficit." Prior to the 1950s, the U.S. government rarely ran sustained deficits outside of major economic crises. Congress and the president have gotten lucky in recent years, thanks to the surge of revenue, and that is all it takes for some people to conclude that the federal government is a savior because it is temporarily not acting like a drunken sailor. The fact that Americans are overtaxed somehow proves that politicians have become saints.

The No. 10 achievement is "promote financial security in retirement." Are elderly Americans more secure now that politicians continually try to frighten them with the specter of being thrown in the street by the opposition party? Prior to the New Deal, Americans had among the highest savings rates in world. Most elderly Americans were independent prior to the Great Depression. The savings rate for the most recent year was zero. The dollar has lot more than 90 percent of its value since 1933 as the government has intentionally subverted the currency in order to maximize its power to manipulate the nation's finances.

Accomplishment No. 21 is "expand foreign markets for U.S. goods." The U.S. government's trade policy since 1950 has worked to open markets: yet one should not forget that it was the U.S. government in the 1920s and early 1930s that did much to wreck the international trading system. And even to this day, U.S. politicians' enthusiasm for selected protectionist scams such as agricultural import quotas and dishonest antidumping laws stymies further liberalization of world trade.

Accomplishment No. 43 is "expand job training and placement." Federal job training must be a big success because the feds have created more than 100 different training programs since the 1960s, most of which have been abolished or renamed after their failure became undeniable. And there is no learning curve: The spirit of CETA continues to permeate federal employment efforts.

Accomplishment No. 38 is "make government more transparent to the public." I trust that none of the professors who applauded that accomplishment have ever filed a Freedom of Information Act request with a federal agency. It would have been more accurate to praise the feds for creating a facade of openness behind which the old machinations continue preventing people from learning how they are being misgoverned.

Accomplishment No. 39 is "stabilize agricultural prices." Federal policy shifts and dementia that occasionally breaks out in the halls of the Agriculture Department have whipsawed crop prices time and again over the last 30 years. And studies have shown that the prices of unregulated farm products are actually less volatile than the prices of the crops with which the government meddles.

Reform taxes is accomplishment No. 48. Compared to what? Taxes were a lot simpler at the start of the 20th century before the federal income tax than at the end. Yet, any marginal decrease in the suicide rate among IRS auditees is all that is necessary for the professors to proclaim victory.

The 50th and final federal achievement is "devolve responsibility to the states." Perhaps the professors have been listening to too many political speeches. Washington is far more the center of the political universe now than it was in 1950. There are far more federal intrusions into state and local turfs than there was in Harry Truman's time.

Mr. Light concludes that in this era of promises to create smaller, more limited government, it is useful to remember that the federal government appears to do best when it exercises its sovereignty to take big risks that no other actor could ever imagine taking.

It is true that, in recent years, no other actor except the feds would have even considered bombing Belgrade, invading Haiti, saving Somalia, nationalizing health care and issuing a quarter million new pages of Federal Register notices since 1993 meddling with people's private lives.

But big risks are not big virtues especially when the politicians and government officials almost never have any personal liability for the resulting carnage. It is absurd to use a hold-harmless clause in examining the impact of big government. We need an honest scorecard for Leviathan one that will seek to ruthlessly balance benefits conveyed with damage wreaked.

James Bovard is the author of "Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion & Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years" (St. Martin's Press).[p]

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