Big government—is it back? Well, I wouldn’t put it quite that way. But September 11 has demonstrably changed, and may continue to change, some attitudes regarding the exercise of government power. Bombing the hell out of Afghanistan may be one of those enterprises for which Americans value the services of the national government. (There may be others; I just can’t think of any right now.)
Well, certainly, we couldn’t have turned the bombing over to the Heritage Foundation or the Fashion Institute of America—assuming they have interest in such an activity. The war-making power vests not only legitimately but logically in government. Who else manufactures B52 bombers and aircraft carriers?
The riposte could be: Fair enough, but legitimacy attaches to the defense of American soil as opposed to the aerial harrowing of somebody else’s.
That’s not an argument many Americans are prepared to latch onto right now. The rejoinder to the riposte is: We were attacked. And because we were attacked, our government has to do something about it. We can do nothing about it without sending in the bombers. (If alternatives exist, what are they? I’m listening . . . )
Anti-big-government Americans find themselves occupying familiar terrain—somewhere between a widely celebrated rock and a well-trodden hard place. This familiarity proceeds from experience with wars past. War, the quintessential governmental function, enlarges both the power and the reach of government. We saw this as long ago as the 1860’s, with Mr. Lincoln’s crackdowns on civil liberties and the institution of military conscription. But to see the country fully militarized, we had to wait until the 20th century: not only conscription but price controls, rationing, nationalization of the railroads, tax increases, new government bureaus to enforce new government rules. This was big, big government.
It shrank somewhat afterward. The railroads were denationalized; price controls died; and so on. At the same time, government had earned some points back on Main Street. After all, we won, didn’t we? We wouldn’t have won but for government, would we? Quod erat demonstrandum. Government programs commanded less automatic skepticism—or hostility—than had formerly been their wont. Indeed, plenty of government programs, even after the fighting, stayed right there in place. Income-tax-withholding, invented during World War II to speed collections, was among the less conspicuous but most baleful survivors. An editor for whom I used to work submitted, with pretty fair logic, that the witholding system immunized ordinary taxpayers to government growth. They ceased to notice how much they were paying, since what they were paying came out biweekly in small bits rather than in one enormous lump sum on April 15.
What effects the present war will have on our tolerance of big government can only be guessed at. Let’s guess, then.
I would name two probable effects: generally broad public support for strenuous security measures in the face of international terrorism, and more frequent and more active interventions abroad. It won’t be a happy time for noninterventionists.
Even though, as I write, Osama bin Laden remains unapprehended and Kandahar holds out, it seems meet and right to think about the fallout from the presumable fall of Afghanistan. A sense of realism is highly to be recommended. We know (at least, I think we know) that between bombing and not bombing there was never the slightest choice. The not-bombing non-option, if adopted, would have been tantamount to a big friendly wave in Al Qaeda’s direction: Hey, plenty of skyscrapers and airplanes left over here! Come get ’em! We won’t bother you! (Just don’t kill too many of us. Please.) Nor would the American people have put up with politicians who suggested such a craven course.
That’s realism. But realism, too, is noticing that government is going to grow in the aftermath of September 11—and preparing to do something about it. Yes, we’re going to defend American honor abroad, but the less “nation-building” we engage in, the better. Let’s aim at not trying terrorists in military tribunals, by eliminating them through good intelligence and intelligent foreign policy that shrewdly appraises American allies and enemies. In the past, we sometimes couldn’t tell the difference. Among the major gains of the Afghan aftermath may be the disposition to take another look at weak, waffling Saudi Arabia, and to ask, mayhap, how these stumblebums, oily as they are, so easily pull our chain.
The trajectory of government does lie upward. That hardly excuses the wise and honest from putting out restraining hands—or feet, when hands are fully occupied.