Madrick on Case for Big Gov’t

I found this an extremely thought provoking Bloggingheads.  I thought some of the League and our readers might as well.  Jeff Madrick discusses with Jim Pinkerton his new book The Case for Big Government. The first half or so when the two discuss the thesis of his book I found more interesting than the latter half discussion of the stimulus bill. Pinkerton is an interesting choice for interviewer since he’s a conservative but not in the total Friedman-ite mold (he was on Huckabee’s staff during the Republican Primary).

Undoubtedly Madrick is offering one side of a story, but it’s a side that I think is often left neglected.  Or has been of late. He mentions at one point that the US around 1850 had as much public primary schooling as Prussia.  Interesting fact that I didn’t know.  But that needs to be teased apart a bit and a major distinction ought to be made between what Daniel Deudney calls continental republicanism and continental forms of autocracy.  The US as the former, Prussia as the latter.  So there’s if you like big government republicanism and big government autocracy/monarchy.  Part of the genius of the US experiment was it being the first to achieve both a republican (small ‘r’) form of government across such a broad swatch of territory.  [Arguably with Canada’s confederal system coming in a close second in many ways influenced by the former].

His recounting of the early American history has a great deal of truth behind it, but I wonder to what degree the history is instructive of what to do in the present.  Obviously for Madrick it is an apologia for a more intelligent form of big government and a pushback against the long tradition of government bashing.  I think he too quickly runs over real critiques of government in the seventies and the possibility that some forms of de-regulation (which started under Carter btw) did jump start certain economic sectors.

It seems to in the history of up to the 1960s, much of the emphasis was on infrastructure and regulatory frameworks and then during the Great Society and on there was a shift to more direct wealth transfer so that when the Reagan revolution hit, those who were opposed were able to conflate (somewhat legitimately, somewhat illegitimately imo) government regulatory and infrastructure frames with more Rawlsian welfare state money transfers and when they managed to create enough public outcry over the latter they threw out the former as well.

In that light, Madrick’s takedown of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, particularly given the current economic debacle, seems particularly on target.

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9 thoughts on “Madrick on Case for Big Gov’t

  1. Will – good job finding that link! That Long piece, despite some slight disagreements with it, was one of my favorite posts from AOTP. It’s good to know someone managed to syndicate it before AOTP closed down. And yes, the shut down of AOTP made the C11 shut down doubly painful for me.

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  2. Will,

    Thanks for the link. That is an excellent one to keep in tension with Madrick. It’s still not clear in my head what if any normative implications (as Will Wilkinson would say) there be to this history. Must be some I suppose, but I don’t know.

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  3. Will:
    Mona wrote a bunch (much of it filled with some fairly justified bitterness) about the circumstances that led to the site’s demise at Unqualified Offerings. The bottom line, though, was that the site’s owner had put together a truly terrible business model for the site. Eventually, I think his real world business went to hell as well and that was pretty quickly the end of the site.

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  4. Below is a very rough beginning of a long piece I was working on something along the lines of the video you linked. In my notes I have well over 100 examples of government growth. In the examples I wanted to write about I made no distinction between “good” or “bad” government action. For example, establishing land grant colleges, bad, interment of the Japanese, good. I only wanted to show that small government is a myth. Conservatives can complain about big government in theory, but practice and history label any claim bogus.


    The post Civil War American conservative movement is largely biased on four concepts: (1) small government, (2) free markets, (3) strong national defense. In the late 1970’s Jerry Falwell, at the urging of Robert Grant, founded the Moral Majority and thus added (4) fundamental Christian ideals to the modern American conservatism. Regardless of party affiliation conservatives will generally embrace these four principles as necessary in any attempted definition of a conservative movement.

    The ideal of small, limited government, is part and parcel of both classical conservatism and classical liberalism. In short, government should should interfere as little as possible, freedom should be maximized. In classical economic conservatism this takes the form of laissez faire theory, owners, not government, are best equipped to set the rules governing business and setting the conditions of labor. For classical liberalism the ideal rests in human rights and popular sovereignty, both of these can be traced back, at least, to the 16th century School of Salamanca. Humanism and freedom of thought are also concepts associated with classical and modern liberalism.

    Ideals are one thing, practice, history, is another. So the question is, Just how how successful, historically, have those touting small government been?

    In recent days President George W. Bush admitted that he has had to surrender some of his free market ideals in order to confront the banking crisis, thus growing government interference in that area and leading some conservatives to call it a “nationalizing of the banking system.” Maybe so. But this is not the first time Bush and small government types in the Republican Party have grown government. It is not difficult to find other Bushian growth. Expansion of Medicare to include prescription drugs is just one costly example of governmental growth passed by a Republican, and a self defined conservative, administration. This insults the very idea of small government. Now, I am not passing judgment on the rightness or wrongness of those two actions. They are just growth of government instituted by an administration talking but not walking the small government meme. Recent history.

    The question, asked above, deserves a longer historical view in the context of America after the Revolution.


    In 1777 the Second Continental Congress proposed the adoption of the Articles, this was broadly an attempt to bring about greater cooperation among the newly established states in the prosecution of the continuing Revolutionary War. Ratification of the Articles was finalized in 1781, the War would end in 1783. The War clearly demanded larger governmental powers in order to successful expel the British army. After the War the Articles proved inadequate to the needs of a functioning government. Shays’ Rebellion, 1786-1787, exemplified the internal weakness of government under the Articles. In 1787 Charles Pinkeny proposed that the Articles be revised in order to expand government in the areas of foreign and domestic commerce and in allow Congress to collect money from state treasuries. Delegates were sent to Annapolis, later Philadelphia, to revise the Articles. Any revision would need to be accepted by all thirteen states but as the delegates continued meeting it was decided that the Articles should not be revised but discarded. More important, the delegates decided, in contradiction of their instructions, that only nine states need ratify the new document for it to take force. The result of the meetings was The Constitution. It represented a huge increase in governmental power. The Constitution had its critics. Some feared that it represented a much to large grant of power to a central government. To quell these fears The Bill of Rights were added, limitations on Congress, “Congress shall make no law….” With this addition the Constution was ratified in 1790. This is about the last meaningful attempt to limit government in the United States.


    I did not take long for sides to form in the battle over the nature of the new government.

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