Big Government for Whom?
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, April 1999
I have seen some of my most stalwart friends flinch before
the accusation that they-in asking, let us say, for a single payer
health care system-were calling for "big government."
So insistent has been the press and the political leadership of
the country-in both parties-that "big government" is
a plague to he avoided, that otherwise courageous people on the
left have retreated before the attack.
It's an issue, therefore. that deserves some examination.
When Bill Clinton, in his 1996 campaign, announced happily
that "the era of big government is over," he was suggesting
that the United States had gone through an unfortunate phase that
was now ended.
He was repeating the myth that there once was a golden past
where the "free market" reigned and the nation followed
Jefferson's dictum: 'that government is best which governs least."
Big government has been with the world for at least 5()() years,
and became very big in this country (Jefferson never followed
his own pronouncement, as he doubled the territory of the government
with the Louisiana Purchase).
It was the rise of the modern nation state in the sixteenth
century that introduced big government to centralize the tax system
and thus raise enough money to subsidize the new worldwide trading
organizations, like the Dutch East India Company and the British
East India Company. Both of these companies were granted government
charters in about 1600, giving them monopoly rights to maraud
around the world, trading goods and human beings, bringing wealth
back to the home country.
The new nation states now had to raise armies and navies to
protect the shipping trade (especially the slave trade) of these
powerful companies, to invade other parts of the world, to forcibly
take land, for trading and settling, from indigenous people. The
state would use its power to drive out foreign competitors, to
put down rebellions at home and abroad. "Big government"
was needed for the benefit of the mercantile and land-owning classes.
Adam Smith, considered the apostle of the "free market,"
understood very well how capitalism could not survive a truly
free market, if government was not big enough to protect it. He
wrote. in the middle of the eighteenth century: "Laws and
governments may be considered in this and indeed in every case,
a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to
themselves the inequality of the goods, which would otherwise
be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered
by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality
with themselves by open violence."
The American colonists, having fought and won the war for
independence from England, faced the question of what kind of
government to establish. In 1786, three years after the treaty
of peace was signed, there was a rebellion of farmers in western
Massachusetts, Ied by Captain Daniel Shays, a veteran of the war.
The uprising was crushed, but it put a scare into those leaders
who were to become our Founding Fathers. After Shays's Rebellion,
General Henry Knox warned his former commander, George Washington,
about the rebels: "They see the weakness of government; they
feel at once their own poverty, compared to the opulent, and their
own force, and they are determined to make use of the latter in
order to remedy the former. Their creed is that the property of
the U.S. has been protected from the confiscations of Britain
by the joint exertions of all, and therefore should be the common
property of all."
The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia for 1787 was
called to deal with this problem, to set up "big government,"
to protect the interests of merchants, slave-holders, land speculators,
establish law and order, and avert future rebellions like that
When the debate took place in the various states over ratification
of the Constitution, the Federalist Papers appeared in the New
York press to support ratification. Federalist Paper 10, written
by James Madison, made clear why a strong central government was
needed: to curb the potential demand of a "majority faction"
for "an equal division of property, or for any other improper
or wicked object."
And so the Constitution set up big government, big enough
to protect slave-holders against slave rebellion, to catch runaway
slaves if they went from one state to another, to pay off bondholders,
to pass tariffs on behalf of manufacturers, to tax poor farmers
to pay for armies that would then attack the farmers if they resisted
payment, as was done in the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania
in 1794. Much of this was embodied in the legislation of the first
Congress, responding to the request of the Secretary of the Treasury,
For all of the nation's history, this legislative pattern
was to continue. Government would defend the interests of the
wealthy classes. It would raise tariffs higher and higher to help
manufacturers, give subsidies to shipping interests, and 10()
million acres of land free to the railroads. It would use the
armed forces to clear Indians off their land, to put down labor
uprisings, to invade countries in the Caribbean for the benefit
of American growers, bankers, investors. This was very big government.
When the Great Depression produced social turmoil, with strikes
and protests all over the nation, the government responded with
laws for Social Security (which one angry Senator said would "take
all the romance out of life"), unemployment insurance, subsidized
housing, work programs, money for the arts. And in the atmosphere
created by the movements of the sixties, Medicare and Medicaid
were enacted. Only then did the cry arise, among politicians and
the press, continuing to this day, warning of the evils of "big
Of course, the alarms about "big government" did
not extend to the enormous subsidies to business. After World
War 11, the aircraft industries, which had made enormous profits
during the war (92 percent of their expansion paid for by the
government), were in decline. Stuart Symington, Assistant Secretary
of the War for Air, wrote to the president of Aircraft lndustries:
"It looks as if our airplane industry is in trouble, and
it would seem to be the obligation of our little shop to do the
best we can to help." The help came and has never stopped
coming. Billions in subsidies poured in each year to produce fighters
When Chrysler ran out of cash in 19~3(), the government stepped
in to help. (Try this the next time you run out of cash.) Tax
benefits, like the oil-depletion allowance, added up over the
years to hundreds of billions of dollars. The New York Times reported
in 1984 that the twelve top military contractors paid an average
tax rate of 1.5 percent while middle-class Americans were paying
15 percent and more.
So it's time to gently point out the hypocrisy as both Democrats
and Republicans decry "big government." When President
Clinton signed the crime bill to build more federal prisons, when
called for billions more for the military budget, he did not
refer to his declaration that "the era of big government
Surely, with only a bit of reflection, it becomes clear that
the issue is not big or little government, but government for
whom'? Is it the ideal expressed by Lincoln-government "for
the people"-or is it the reality described by the Populist
orator Mary Elizabeth Lease in 189(): "a government of Wall
Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street"'?
There is good evidence that the American people, whose common
sense often resists the most energetic propaganda campaigns, understand
this. Political leaders and the press have pounded away at their
sensibilities with the fearful talk of "big government,"
and so long as it remains an abstraction, it is easy for people
to go along, each listener defining it in his or her own way.
But when specific questions are asked, the results are illuminating.
Again and again, public opinion surveys over the last decade
have shown that people want the government to act to remedy economic
injustice. Last year, the Pew Research Center asked if it is "the
responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't
take care of themselves?" and 61 percent said they either
completely agreed or mostly agreed. When, after the Republican
Congressional victory in 1994 The New York Times asked people
their opinions on "welfare," the responses were evenly
for and against. The Times headline read: PUBLIC SHOWS TRUST IN
GOP CONGRESS, but this misled its readers, because when the question
was posed more specifically: "Should the government help
people in need?" more than 65 percent answered in the affirmative.
This should not surprise us. The achievements of the New Deal
programs still glow warmly in the public memory: Social Security,
unemployment insurance, the public works programs, the minimum
wage, the subsidies for the arts. There is an initial worried
reaction when people are confronted with the scare words "big
government." But that falls away as soon as someone points
to the G.l. Bill of Rights, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and
loans to small business.
So let's not hesitate to say: We want the government, responding
to the Lincolnian definition of democracy, to organize a system
that gives free medical care to everyone and pays for it out of
a reformed tax system that is truly progressive. In short, we
want everyone to be in the position of U.S. Senators and members
of the armed forces-beneficiaries of big, benevolent government.
Because "big government" in itself is hardly the
issue. That is here to stay. The only question is: Whom will it
Howard Zinn, author of 'A People's History of the United States,"
is a columnist for The Progressive.