01 June 2017

Who's afraid of big government?

Let me quote from a local newspaper editorial written in June 1917, shortly after the U.S. intervened in World War I by declaring war on Germany. Seeing the beginnings of an expansion of government, some people worried that the fight against "Prussian militarism" would leave the U.S. itself "Prussianized." The original writer can take it from there:

They are alarmed at every new authority delegated by the government. They are jealous of every yielding of customary private right to meet a war emergency. They seem to feel that there is some insidious conspiracy at work to rob the people of their hard-won liberties and establish a governing caste in the United States.

Who were these alarmists that sound so familiar a century later? Was it the Freedom Caucus? The Libertarians? In fact, it was no one on what we see as the "right." The writer identifies them as "Some of our Socialist and pacifist friends." Pacifists I understand, but Socialists? Don't they love big government, and don't they want it to take advantage of every opportunity for expansion? Why did the Socialists of 1917 sound like the Republicans of 2017? The simple answer is that nearly anyone can sound that way depending on the rights or liberties government seems to be encroaching on, and toward what end it does so. In fact, it's not hard to find 21st century conservatives who blame the wartime President, Woodrow Wilson, for an insidious expansion of government that predated the war. Presumably, though, they're concerned with a different set of endangered liberties than the Socialists of 100 years ago were. Either way, this was the editorial's answer:

If the government be invested with extraordinary authority during the war, it is because a free nation wills it. That has been proved to be the best way of waging war. When the need is past, the same free nation will do precisely what it thinks best.

That may look naive to the modern reader accustomed to all the world's slippery slopes, who assumes that any encroachment on liberty is permanent, but the opposite of that perceived naivete is the perceiver's own paranoia or dogmatic distrust -- and in the end, which is worse?

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