Having taught for many years a course in US government, I was always struck by the kind of triumphalist textbooks used to teach the material. The standard text when I began teaching the course, by Theodor Lowi and Benjamin Ginsburg, one that is still being periodically updated by their graduate assistants, celebrates in more than five hundred bloated pages the march of Big Brother through American history.
The residual authority of the states, the defined powers of Congress in Article One of the Constitution, and the notion the Supreme Court should be the “weakest of the three branches” are treated as inconvenient archaisms that had to be overcome in order to lift up the oppressed members of our society. We learn that Hamilton favored strong federal power but did so for reactionary reasons, unlike modern judicial activists who have allegedly applied federal power positively, to make us a “more open society.”
By now, thank Heavens, I am mercifully free of the job of running these cheering sessions for big government but still receive ads for the PR that publishing companies dutifully put out as shills of the central state. Last week my mail included a glossy post card from Brookings Institute that invited me to order Paul C. Light’s Government’s Greatest Achievements: From Civil Rights to Homeland Security.
The ad encourages teachers to order this text if they wish to “help students learn how government succeeds.” Moreover, “Light explores the federal government’s most successful accomplishments over the previous five decades” and expresses the hope that these good things will continue to multiply. If what is being advertised is like other celebrations of managerial bigness in government, against which it will have to compete for college sales, it is based on misrepresentation about the sources of American prosperity.
As Thomas Sowell cogently shows in Civil Rights: Rhetoric and Reality (originally written in the early 1980s when I began assigning it to my students), American blacks had a history of solid socio-economic achievements in the generation preceding the civil rights legislation of the fifties and sixties. Significantly, this rate of black improvement decreased from the mid-sixties on, a situation that spurred on such dubious federal intervention as busing and affirmative action.
Moreover, given the economic changes generated in the private sector already by the sixties, it is doubtful that segregation would have continued for much longer. What took its place, however, was “integration” as practiced by social engineers. But this would not have taken place unless government control of society had not been increasing throughout the same period. Nor would various governmental attempts have been undertaken in the last thirty-five years to reconstruct our society, for the sake of “inclusiveness.”
Unfortunately the greatest recent “success story” of our federal government and its truly pernicious counterparts in Europe is its colonization of the family and of other intermediate institutions. The managerial state has parlayed revenues and brute force to gain influence and even control over such institutions and over social relations in the workplace and in universities.
It is unseemly for a people that once prided itself on authentic liberty to begin sounding like the court lackeys of the ancient pharaohs, reveling in the unprecedented power of the sovereign and praising his assault on centers of opposition to his will.
The fact that we have elected officials, in addition to unelected judges and tenured bureaucrats, running our regime, does not make what is produced any more palatable. As I used to tell my students, to no avail, it is inappropriate for citizens of what was intended to be a limited government to treat its derailment as a “successful accomplishment.” And with due respect to US government textbook authors, any return to the primitive practice of worshipping the sovereign has nothing to do with real human progress.