Resurgence of the Warfare State
The Crisis Since 9/11
By Robert Higgs
The Independent Institute Copyright © 2005 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
Glory Days for Government
An Economic Historian Talks about National-Security Crises and the Growth of Government
Originally appeared September 20, 2001
Michael Lynch of Reason interviews Robert Higgs shortly after 9/11.
As Operation Infinite Justice gets under way, the war drums are beating across the land, and a battle will surely come, although we know neither when nor what particular form it will take. Only this much is certain: though our government didn't bring on last week's terrorist attacks and everyone in Washington would certainly give plenty for them not to have occurred, war is a great friend of the state. In such troubled times, people look to the federal government for action and assurance. To get predictions about what we might expect to happen this time around, I checked in with economic historian Robert Higgs, whose book Crisis And Leviathan (Oxford University Press, 1987) insightfully chronicled how national crises in the twentieth century consistently helped grow the size and scope of our federal government. Higgs is a senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of the institute's quarterly journal The Independent Review.
REASON: What's the thesis of your book?
ROBERT HIGGS: In a nutshell, it's that when a crisis of major significance occurs — something as large-scale and pervasive as the Great Depression or the world wars — there's an overwhelming public demand for government to act. In the twentieth century, every national emergency has seen federal government take unprecedented action to somehow allay the perceived threat to our security. These actions have taken a great many forms, but the common denominator is that they all entail the increased exercise of power by government over society and the economy. When the crisis ends, many of the emergency actions cease. But not all of them. Each emergency ratchets up the size and scope of the federal government. In some cases, agencies that had a very strict relation to the emergency transform to take on new missions.
REASON: What's an example of an agency that transformed itself?
HIGGS: The War Finance Corporation in World War I was created to provide funds for various munitions enterprises. When the war ended, the War Finance Corporation turned to financing agricultural cooperatives and the export of agricultural products to Europe. It lived on until 1925. In 1932, it was revived to bail out railroads and other big companies that were going bankrupt during the Great Depression. During World War II, it was used for a multitude of new missions, including building new defense plants and stockpiling defense materials. When it was finally abolished in the 1950s because of scandals, it was immediately re-created in part as the Small Business Administration, which itself has taken on a variety of tasks over time.
REASON: Are the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a large enough crisis to feed Leviathan?
HIGGS: It's a big enough perceived emergency to cause the government to extend into areas it may not have moved into so quickly, particularly surveillance of ordinary citizens and ordinary locations where people might congregate for business or recreational purposes.
REASON: Is it appropriate for individuals to worry about government expanding at this time?
HIGGS: It's extremely appropriate, because historically a large proportion of all government expansion has taken place as an emergency or crisis action. It's precisely under conditions such as those that exist at present that we ought to worry the most about the expansion of government.
REASON: What ought we to look for this time?
HIGGS: We can expect thousands of reservists to be called to active duty and taken away from their ordinary jobs. We can expect the assignment of military forces to some unprecedented duties. It appears that some military units are going to be used for domestic police activities. It is clearly going to be the case that the FBI will become far more active in surveillance activities. The government will mount a variety of overseas actions requiring the armed forces, and perhaps a number of civilian employees, to attempt to kill, to disable, or to damage what are taken to be terrorist cadres, camps, or facilities. It is also fairly clear that the government is going to have to bail out the airline industry and maybe the insurance industry. When the government takes large-scale, unprecedented actions of this sort, unanticipated consequences always occur. Then the government has to expand even further to deal with those consequences.
REASON: Civil liberties always take a beating in war. Do the restrictions recede after wars are over?
HIGGS: The civil liberties violations during the world wars were, for the most part, abandoned after the wars, but not entirely. But they left institutional residues and changes in public attitudes and outlooks that could be exploited afterward. For example, it's pretty clear that World War I hysteria directed at the Germans was later directed at individuals caught up in the so-called Red Scare. People were already in a high state of excitement about "un-Americanism." That was instrumental in the ability of the government to persecute, deport, and otherwise harm a number of foreigners who were in the country at that time. The FBI expanded during World War II. After the war, FBI activities were often directed at dissident political factions, especially in the 1960s. Wars have increased state power both directly and indirectly. I've been talking about fairly direct ways in which the government changed opinions and institutions to enable it to do new things after a crisis ended. But a very important way in which both world wars enlarged the power of government was through the effect on government budgets. We can see that same effect operating now. Governments at war spend much more money than they otherwise would. In doing so, normal constraints on government spending are broken — particularly people's attitudes about the importance of balancing the budget or belief that no more than x dollars ought to be spent for a certain purpose. Both world wars caused the size of government relative to gross domestic product to take a jump up, and there was never retrenchment to the relative levels before the wars. We see something similar in the current episode. Until recently there was a great deal of political struggle over not spending the supposed Social Security surplus. As soon as the crisis burst forth, that concern evaporated. Congress gave the president twice as much money as he asked for when he went in for an emergency appropriation. That is pretty much in character with past crises. Fiscal constraints break down very quickly in the face of perceived emergency conditions.
REASON: What's the nature of the coming crisis?
HIGGS: The whole concept of wiping out terrorism is completely misguided. It simply can't be done. Terrorism is a simple act for any determined adult to perpetrate no matter what kind of security measures are taken. I suspect that after the government finishes making its show [of force] in the next few weeks, it will only inspire new acts of terrorism — if not immediately, then eventually. If the government were really serious about diminishing the amount of effective terrorist acts, it would set about creating a global corps of truly unsavory informants on the ground. But it's never shown in the past that it's had the wit to do that. I don't expect it to have the wit to do it this time. I expect to see a lot of huffing and puffing, calling up troops, dropping bombs and missiles, and maybe this time even sending in special forces for attacks on one group or another. But this is all politics. It's not going to make a dent in the genuine threat of terrorism.
REASON: What do you expect in terms of Leviathan at the end of the day?
HIGGS: The ultimate result will be an enlargement of the Big Brother State. We were moving that way already. This will accelerate it.
Michael W. Lynch is Reason's national correspondent.
Immediate Action, Prolonged Regret
Originally appeared October 4, 2001
In a national emergency, perhaps the strongest urge of democratically elected officials is to "do something" immediately. Politicians believe that inaction sends citizens the message that their leaders are indecisive and perhaps incompetent to deal with the crisis. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress and the president are proposing a host of new security measures and other laws and regulations. Federal spending — which, as figure 1 shows, spiked for both World Wars — is about to spike again with higher spending for the military, domestic security, stricken industries, and perhaps other items.
In America's past, however, in virtually every case, policies adopted in the heat of the moment have proven, in cool retrospect, to have been overreactions that sapped the long-term vitality of civil society and the free-market economy.
WORLD WAR I
With U.S. entry into World War I, the federal government expanded enormously in size, scope, and power. It virtually nationalized the ocean shipping industry. It did nationalize the railroad, telephone, domestic telegraph, and international telegraphic cable industries. It became deeply engaged in manipulating labor-management relations, securities sales, agricultural production and marketing, the distribution of coal and oil, international commerce, and markets for raw materials and manufactured products. Its Liberty Bond drives dominated the financial capital markets. It turned the newly created Federal Reserve System into a powerful engine of monetary inflation to help satisfy the government's voracious appetite for money and credit. In view of the more than five thousand mobilization agencies of various sorts — boards, committees, corporations, and administrations — contemporaries who described the 1918 government as "war socialism" were well justified.
To ensure that the conscription-based mobilization of an army could proceed without obstruction, the government had to silence its critics. The Espionage Act of June 15, 1917, penalized those convicted of willfully obstructing the enlistment services with fines of up to $10,000 and imprisonment of as long as twenty years. An amendment, the Sedition Act of May 16, 1918, went much further, imposing the same severe criminal penalties on all forms of expression in any way critical of the government, its symbols, or its mobilization of resources for the war. Those suppressions of free speech, subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court, established dangerous precedents that derogated from the rights previously enjoyed by citizens under the First Amendment.
The government further subverted the Bill of Rights by censoring all printed materials, peremptorily deporting hundreds of aliens without due process of law and conducting — and encouraging state and local governments and vigilante groups to conduct — warrantless searches and seizures, blanket arrests of suspected draft evaders, and other outrages too numerous to catalog here. In California, the police arrested Upton Sinclair for reading the Bill of Rights at a rally. In New Jersey, the police arrested Roger Baldwin for publicly reading the Constitution.
When the war ended, the government abandoned most, but not all, of its wartime control measures. By the end of 1920, the bulk of the economic regulatory apparatus had been scrapped, including the Food Administration, the Fuel Administration, the Railroad Administration, the War Industries Board, and the War Labor Board. Some emergency powers migrated into regular government departments such as State, Labor, and Treasury and continued in force. The Espionage Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act remained on the statute books. Congressional enactments in 1920 preserved much of the federal government's wartime involvement in the railroad and ocean shipping industries. The War Finance Corporation shifted missions, subsidizing exporters and farmers until the mid-1920s. Wartime prohibition of alcoholic beverages, a purported conservation measure, transmogrified into the ill-fated Eighteenth Amendment.
WORLD WAR II
During World War II, federal authorities resorted to a vast system of controls and market interventions to get resources without having to bid them away from competing buyers in free markets. By fixing prices, directly allocating physical and human resources, establishing official priorities, prohibitions, and set-asides, then rationing the civilian consumer goods in short supply, the war planners steered raw materials, intermediate goods, and finished products into the uses they valued most. Markets no longer functioned freely; in many areas they did not function at all.
World War II witnessed massive violations of human rights in the United States. Most egregiously, some 112,000 blameless persons of Japanese ancestry, most of them U.S. citizens, were uprooted from their homes and confined in concentration camps without due process of law. Those subsequently released as civilians during the war remained under parolelike surveillance. The government also imprisoned nearly 6,000 conscientious objectors — three-fourths of them Jehovah's Witnesses — who would not comply with the military draft laws. Signaling the enlarged federal capacity for repression, the number of FBI special agents increased from 785 in 1939 to 4,370 in 1945.
Scores of newspapers were denied the privilege of the mails under the authority of the 1917 Espionage Act, which remained in effect. Some newspapers were banned altogether. The Office of Censorship restricted the content of press reports and radio broadcasts and censored personal mail entering or leaving the country.
The government seized more than sixty industrial facilities — sometimes entire industries (e.g., railroads, bituminous coal mines, meatpacking firms) — most of them in order to impose employment conditions favorable to labor unions engaged in disputes with the management.
At the end of the war, most of the economic control agencies shut down. Some powers persisted, however, either lodged at the local level, like New York City's rent controls, or shifted from emergency agencies to regular departments. For example, certain international-trade controls were moved from the wartime Foreign Economic Administration to the State Department.
Federal tax revenues remained very high by prewar standards. In the late 1940s, the Internal Revenue Service's annual take averaged four times greater in constant dollars than in the late 1930s. In 1949, federal outlays amounted to 15 percent of gross national product, up from 10 percent in 1939. The national debt stood at what would have been an unthinkable figure before the war, $214 billion — in constant dollars, roughly one hundred times the national debt in 1916.
THE COLD WAR
During the Cold War, the government's operatives committed crimes against the American people too numerous to catalog here. The government's reprehensible actions, which many citizens viewed as only abuses, we can apprehend more plausibly as intrinsic to its constant preparation for and episodic engagement in warfare. (Continues...)
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