There is an impulse among our citizenry to demand action in the wake of any perceived tragedy or crisis. Usually fueled by one noteworthy event, the subsequent furor often leads to “national conversations” accompanied by expansive legislation.
The arenas of these flashpoints are foreign and domestic. They range from school shootings to eighth graders’ math test scores; from climate change to foreign insurgencies. In each instance, the bad news story is apparently indicative of systemic problems with catastrophic consequences, barring government action.
There is certainly a logical element to this thinking. In our personal lives, after all, when we detect a problem, we generally go about to solve it. We act quickly and expect others to do so, be they friends, colleagues, or ourselves. And this usually leads to positive outcomes.
However effective in our own lives, though, such action when executed by government is often quite harmful. Politicians, while often well intentioned, are subject to influences that cloud their judgement, both grassroots voters and moneyed special interests. The instinct for political survival is as strong as any. (According to the Center for Responsive Politics, House incumbent re-election rates have ranged from 88%-98% since 1990.) Hastily-crafted, far-reaching legislation passed in response to supposedly urgent crises creates myriad issues, especially in regards to cost, restrictions of freedom, and unintended consequences.
History is replete with examples of heavy-handed, ill-fated government interference in response to crises. As Robert Higgs of The Independent Institute notes in his book Delusions of Power, “Crisis…produces a virtual free-for-all of policies, programs, and plans that expand the government’s power in new directions and strengthen it where it previously existed in a weaker form.” (p. 80).
Consider the following examples:
Ronald Reagan and the war on drugs: For over the first hundred years of America’s existence, what individuals put into their own bodies was none of the government’s business for the purpose of criminal law. The Founding Fathers, often depicted as demigods by Republicans, made no attempt to ban individual consumption. Yet in 1986, modern GOP hero Ronald Reagan went on national TV declaring that illegal narcotics were a national security threat. “Crack babies”, destruction of the family, and drug-fueled gang violence threatened the country’s moral fiber, and action was demanded.
Reagan stepped up interdiction efforts through his newly created Office of National Drug Control Policy, which houses the DEA. In fiscal 2012, the ONDCP spent $25.2 billion on prevention and enforcement. The US now has the highest imprisonment rate among industrialized countries. Many prisoners, particularly minorities, are nonviolent offenders who used or dealt minimal amounts of marijuana. (Pot is now classified as a Stage One drug, on par with heroin.) Citizens with chronic ailments are forbidden from alleviating their pain. Raids are conducted regularly on Americans’ homes.
In addition to the loss of liberty and money, the crisis-inspired drug war has led to an appalling loss of life. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon pinned the blame of much of Mexico’s 50,000+ gang-related deaths on America’s drug prohibition.
Uninsured Americans and the Affordable Care Act: Facing a mounting debt and fighting two wars, the Obama administration and others focused on the supposed crisis of Americans without health insurance. Respected news outlets spoke of 44 or more million uninsured Americans, vulnerable should they become ill. Additionally, health care costs were rising, increasing nearly tenfold from 1980 to 2010. After gathering support, the Democratic congress passed a 2,000 page bill that would apparently provide coverage to all Americans while simultaneously driving down costs.
As it turned out, the 44 million figure was incorrect, as it included non-citizens and individuals who could afford health insurance but chose not to. The actual number was closer to eight million, and even that didn’t account for people who lacked insurance but could still access emergency services. The bill was later shown to lack the ability to even cover that many recipients, as its complicated structure of penalties, taxes, and regulations created an unpredictable set of responses. Similarly, the supposed cost savings turned out to be bogus. Economist Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University noted that 2011 healthcare costs rose 4.6 percent in 2011.
Cost overruns and excessive mandates stymieing small businesses were bad enough, but were also accompanied by a trampling of numerous parts of the Constitution. The Act confers to the state the ability to levy a tax for just about any reason it wants, and will make the creation of more bureaucracies that much easier.
9/11 and the anti-terror state: The bombing of the World Trade Center was an unspeakable tragedy. US policymakers were certainly justified in pursuing a focused, timely, and limited military action to subdue the forces responsible and lessen the chances of a repeat occurrence. But Americans were scared; we clung to government as the guarantor of our absolute safety. As such, the Bush administration sensed (correctly) that it had the political capital to pursue a far-reaching agenda at home and abroad.
Stateside, Bush created the Department of Homeland Security, combining 22 federal agencies into one cabinet-level bureaucracy with a FY 2012 budget of $56.9 billion. He nationalized airport security, giving the Transportation Security Administration new authority and more money. For that, Americans now have the pleasure of enduring embarrassing and/or harmful screenings that do little to improve our safety.
Americans’ constitutional rights and privacy were trampled by the creation of the Patriot Act, which, among other things, allows DHS to monitor our communications without a search warrant. Pressed recently by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the department couldn’t even provide an estimate of how many Americans have been spied on by their own government.
Abroad, the US fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are responsible for over 4,500 US deaths and 1,500 amputations. They have caused tremendous suffering among even the uninjured soldiers forced to serve multiple tours of duty and placed strain on their families. Combined, the CBO estimates the wars to have cost over $1.7 trillion. Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs magazine called the Iraq War “one of the oldest and most straightforward stories in the book-a classic realist cautionary tale of unchecked power leading to hubris, then folly, then nemesis.” (How Wars End, p. 266)
The above are only a very small sample of this prevalent phenomenon. As citizens, we need to recognize the history and anticipate the consequences. Rather than giving into the logical desire to throw our hands up and make someone fix every ailment in our society, we should look for remedies outside of government action.