Gregory Paul: "How Big Government Built America"

According to small government conservatives and libertarians that make up the Republican Party and its allies, big government is as unAmerican as it ineffective. They claim that America is exceptional because it enjoys the benefits of limited governance, and that the less government there is the better. The belief that big government never, ever worked is bad is built on the Great American Myth that this great nation was constructed by the efforts and struggles of individuals who struck out on their own into the wilderness to forge a country from sea to shining sea.

Here’s what really happened.

If you want to go back to a time when central government was really small in these lands try the early colonial period. The British Crown exercised little direct control over the colonists because of the distances involved. Colonial enterprises tended to be privatized affairs that worked on charters, and largely ran their own shows. The Separatists that we now call Pilgrims moved to across the pond specifically to get away from the Crown and set up their own theocracy. These resulting predemocratic experiences help explain why Americans were able to run their new nation of liberty from the get go. However, within the colonial groups government was often very big in that it strived to control social norms. Most extremely via execution of witches and heretics.

The British government become much more involved in their colonies during and after the French and Indian War, a global conflict (the Seven Years War) that was literally initiated when a young George Washington decided on his own to attack French frontier forces. The Crown went into deep dept waging the world war, and in order to try to improve their finances then attempted to tax the colonists without representation. For this and other reasons a large segment of the American colonists decided to seek independence.

The American Revolution was not a grassroots, guerilla style revolt in which plucky individuals with long rifles defeated the Brits by picking off massed Redcoats at a distance. It was a classic Big Government war effort in which the centralized Congress raised enormous sums to equip and field large armies and build and man fortifications. In doing so the US government went into deep dept, as portrayed in the HBO documentary on John Adams who ended up petitioning the Dutch for a large loan.

For a brief period the nation was run under the ideal libertarian document, the Articles of Confederation that resulted in a truly limited government. It failed spectacularly. The minimal government experiment was quickly abandoned in favor of the current Constitution. When libertarians claim to be Constitutionalists they are pulling everyone’s legs. Basically, the founders were trying to come up with a scheme that would produce the best possible combination of private capitalism with collectivist government action within the context of the times they lived in. That the new Constitution was far from a libertarian tract was confirmed by its support for passage from the likes of Alexander Hamilton, who favored a powerful central government.

Deep in debt from the revolution, the Federal government had to levy taxes on good including the lucrative alcohol trade, and when many on the frontier balked the old general Washington quickly dispatched Federal troops to put down the “Whiskey Rebellion.” Taxation with representation was not the evil that is taxation without representation.

Thomas Jefferson opposed big government. He was therefore in something of a quandary when Napoleon, needing fast cash to wage more war on England, and realizing the strategic problems of maintaining a large American colony, offered to sell a large chunk of North America at a bargain basement price. These days Congressional Republicans pretend to seek a Constitutional justification for each piece of legislation. Good thing they were not in charge back in 1804. President Jefferson did not see anything in the document that supported his spending federal money to acquire the Louisiana Territories, but he had to act quickly before Bonaparte changed his mind, and there was no way that private capital could come up with such a large sum, so he became a big government President and made the US into a continental colossus. The best land deal in history. Who says the government cannot do anything right?

The effort was split the nation was in small government affair in that the Confederacy was all about limited central government in favor of states rights, while the the United States was far more about federal power. The refusal of the southern states to better centralize their military program while the northern nation did so was a key reason that the latter in the end won. That the south was much more libertarian – and conservative Christian — than the more secular north is one reason why many conservative Americans remain sympathetic to the supposed liberty loving Lost Cause despite its dependence on slavery. The project to keep the nation united and end slavery was a big as Big Government gets. Had it failed North America would have been at risk of being afflicted by a series of wars between two or more modest sized countries. Nor would the USA be a great global power for better or worst.

It was the Feds who won the west. As per the Mexican-American War that brought the southwest and west coast into the American fold, and federal actions to secure the northwest from British encroachment. When the Czar decided that the Russo-American colony could cover financial short falls by selling it to the US the latter yet again went down the big government path by using big federal bucks to purchase “Seward’s Folly.” The next best land deal in history. More taxpayers’ dollars at work.

Before, during and after the Civil War the country was suffering from a case of the splits. Not north and south, but east and west. Traveling between the eastern states and the two on the west coast was a long, arduous and expensive journey by foot or livestock, or by sea, that took many weeks and involved high rates of mortality. Yet the technology, developed by private capital, was on hand to solve the problem. Railroad carrying steam locomotives. The problem was that the cost to lay the tracks all the way across the western territories was far beyond what private capital could cough up, all the more so since the resulting traffic would not justify the cost for decades. So Uncle Sam subsidized the transcontinental project, and by the late 1860s folks could travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific in a few days, at reasonable expense and comfort.

The west was an enormous federal development and jobs project. The government provided the troops to protect settlers. And the money for waterworks that made much of western agriculture and urbanization possible. Also funded by taxpayers was the national park system that save Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon from private development including resource extraction, residential complexes, and theme parks and casinos. The ultimate example of frontier subsidization by the feds is Alaska, where the anti-government, GOP dominated minority rails against Washington while their politicians make sure to keep the money flowing lest the state sink into impoverishment and loss of population.

World War II was a colossal government founded endeavor. Without massive federal funding, organization and regulation there is no way that the US could have produced the ordnance and fielded the vast forces needed to defeat the Germans, Italians and Japanese by 1945 if ever. Key to managing the home front effort was the War Production Board that redirected and shut down a lot of the private sector economy in order to switch production from consumer goods to military hardware. Had the board not taken control of the situation industry would have continued using steel, aluminum and other vital materials to produce cars and such rather than some 100 fleet, light and escort aircraft carriers in just four years, hundreds of cruisers and destroyers, over three thousand cargo ships, hundreds of thousands of aircraft, tens of thousands armored vehicles, vast quantities of ammunition, etc., etc. Rationing of critical items not only made them available for the conflict, but gave the country a sense of shared sacrifice that was vital to maintaining morale at home and especially at the fronts where soldiers and sailors serving under dreadful circumstances felt the folks back in the states were pulling their weight (unlike the Repub-libertarians urging the homeland to buy, buy, buy in response to the post 9/11 wars, further detaching the voluntary military from the general population). Also important where the price controls that kept prices from soaring as they usually do in response the large scale wars. Only the government in the form of the US Navy could provide the organization and expertise to design the big warships that were then constructed in both government and private shipyards – from this hybrid collaboration emerged the renowned Essex class carriers, excellent Fletcher class destroyers, and efficientGato class submarines. Smaller machines such as aircraft and vehicles were left to private designers and builders.

Conservative revisionism is trying to make it as though it was Yankee free enterprise that won the war with little in the way of a governmental contribution. Among them Arthur Herman’s Freedom’s Forge” How American Business Produced Victory in World War II. On Book-TV he cited North American Aviation’s famed P-51 Mustang was the best long range fighter plane of the war, thereby defeating the Luftwaffe in the spring of 1944. But the 51 was so fast and fuel efficient A) partly because of the laminar flow wing that was devised and wing tunnel tested at the US NACA that later became NASA; and B largely because its radiator used a sort of jet effect to recover most of the drag usually created when cooling piston engines — “Meredith Effect” radiators were developed at the British government run Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. And the engine that really made the P-51 a war winner was the Rolls Royce Merlin whose development was heavily subsidized by the British government, as was the radar that the Brits and Yanks used to win the war and was then applied to a myriad of civilian uses. The Mustang, like the Allied war effort as a whole, was a good combo of public and private effort.

Take the ordinary jetliner. Surely there’s an example of capital doing what government can’t do. The ancestor, after all, of the modern airliner was Boeing’s 707, a classic product of private enterprise (unlike the earlier British government financed Comet jetliner of inferior performance and a tendency to break apart at altitude). Well, not so much. Boeing did not research and develop the aerodynamic combination of long, flexible swept wings and jet engines in external pods that mark all subsonic commercial jets. The configuration was formulated by German government subsidized aerodynamic engineers in the late 30s and early 40s. After the data was captured by the Allies after the war it was handed over to American aviation corporations, and applied by Boeing to the first high speed bombers, the B-47 and B-52 of the early 50s. Government projects all. Boeing wanted to use this technology to produce a fast airliner, but even after all the government based R&D support they did not have the capital. Fortunately the USAF needed a fast tanker jet to refuel the 47s and 52s that could hardly fly slowly enough to be refueled from slow poke piston-prop tankers, and Boeing saw how government funds could be leveraged for their commercial designs. So Boeing designed a plane that could be either a tanker or a liner. Using the KC-135 tanker sales to subsidize the passenger version, thus appeared the 707. Unlike the Comet the 707 never suffered from catastrophic metal fatigue induced breakups – because the British government kindly made the information from the Comet failures openly available. Even then Boeing never really made money on the 707 — McDonald Douglas made the bad financial decision to produce the nearly identical performing DC-8 that made both planes financial underperformers. In those times the biggest manufacturers of airliners were Boeing and McDonald Douglas. These days the second no longer exists because it never really did make much money from its airliners, and the largest producer of liners is the European government subsidized Airbus. As a whole the airlines have been money losers for decades, and if not for the massive national subsidies for the national airport complex air travel would be too expensive for most folks to use on a regular basis. And government regulation has made flying 7 miles high at nearly the speed of sound fantastically safe (

Then there is space. Imagine what would have happened if not for the needs of the government. Big boosters were initially developed for military requirements. It is hardly likely commercial interests would have developed the Atlases, Titans et al. that required fantastic expense to develop only to blow up all the time until most of the bugs were worked out of the flying bombs. If not for government monies communication, weather and environmental survey satellites and GPS (itself a military program) would not exist, much less the probes to the planets and the Hubble telescope (basically a spy satellite configured to look up rather than down). What private concern would sink the tremendous funds into such things with no hope of getting their money back for decades, if ever? Even if private capital takes over space travel (but see it will be because of the foundations laid by government work.

Back on planet earth, after the war the inadequate state of the national road system in the modern era became apparent, leading the big government Republican Eisenhower, who had seen the effectiveness of government in the war, to back the federal highway system. If not for big governance we would still have to drive across the USA on a patchwork of state and private roads and highways.

After languishing for lack of private interest after their initial discovery in the late 1920s, antibiotics were at last developed during a large-scale government program for wound treatment during the last world war. Private drug companies could not afford it. These days it is increasingly difficult (as microbes develop resistance) and very costly to develop new antibiotics, and people do not use them nearly enough to justify the upfront costs, so drug corporations won’t touch them unless subsidized. That’s why going to the hospital is becoming increasingly dangerous, and getting a simple cut is returning to being the potential death threat it used to be. Free markets are not going to solve this life or death problem.

Once upon a time the human genome was largely a mystery, sequencing small segments was consumed lots of time and cash. The Feds funded the project to sequence the entire length for a pittance for the government but way beyond what capital could put up, $3.8 billion. As the end of the project approached private financing joined the race and total economic benefit so far has been in the hundreds of billions with trillions to follow.

Who were the first buyers of semiconductors in the 1950s and 1960s? The Air Force and NASA. Their priming the pump sped up the digital age a decade or so.

By no means has Big Government been close to perfect. Big mistakes have been made. The westward expansion was to the detriment of Amerindians and the environment. Many of the megawaterworks have been dubious. There was the “Bridge to Nowhere” that Sarah Palin first supported and then didn’t. NASA’s Space Shuttle was a death trap. Solyndra. But private enterprise lays big eggs all the time, is prone to downplaying safety or protecting the environment to maximize profits, and most importantly has limited development scale. Look at how big auto took decades to drive itself into a ditch of bankruptcy until big government bailed them out. Eurogovernment subsidized Airbus was taken to task for splitting up construction of its gigantic A380 among the nations who contributed to its development, resulting in serious problems and delays. Surely the hard nosed capitalists at Boeing would not make the same mistake with its fuel sipping 787 dreamliner. Whose construction has been seriously delayed because its sections are being built hither and yon from Asia to Europe (and Boeing is considering consolidating some of its manufacturing in Seattle).

Ameroconservatives are wonderfully inconsistent about their antipathy toward big government. During the 2012 campaign they have decried cutting the defense budget as a job killer. This from the people who denounce government as incapable of creating jobs. Many conservatives love pouring taxpayer dollars into nuclear power and the fossil fuels industry. And farmers who tend to vote Repub in exchange.

The fact is that if not for Big Government, the nation would not have become independent in the 1700s. If not for BG North America would likely consist of two or more competing nations rather than a unified superpower. If you are a eurowesterner then you are benefiting from a long history of BG. If not for BG we Americans would not have the liberty to get into our hybrid automobile in Maine, and travel across the highways without bothering to cross a border down the Florida, and over to California, and up to Oregon, and back to Maine. Or hop on a Boeing or Airbus to fly at cheap rates from New York to Los Angeles. Forget those robots on Mars or Titan. Or GPS. And without BG, you’re more likely to die from some nasty microbe.

So just what is your big principled problem with your tax dollars at work?

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