A Little Disquisition on Big Government
by Howard Zinn
excerpted from the book
Howard Zinn on History
Seven Stories Press, 2000, paper
The Declaration of independence, which is the quintessential
document of democracy, discusses the origin and purpose of government.
It says that we are all endowed "with certain unalienable
rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness." It further says that "to secure these rights,
governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers
from the consent of the governed." Well, if governments have
the responsibility to secure for all of us our rights to life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that is a big order, calling,
it may well be argued, for "big government." This essay
discusses the hypocrisy surrounding the cries of politicians-Democrats
as well as Republicans-to do away with "big government."
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 be avoided, that otherwise courageous people on the
Left have retreated before the attack.
It's an issue, therefore, that deserves some examination,
using a bit of history.
When 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 which
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 five hundred
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 national state in the 16th century
that introduced big government, to centralize the tax system and
thus raise enough money to subsidize the new world-wide trading
organizations, like the Dutch East India Company and the British
East India Company. Both of these companies were granted government
charters around 1600, giving them monopoly rights to maraud around
the world, trading goods and human beings, bringing wealth back
to the home country.
The new national 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
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 18th century:
Laws and governments may be considered in this and indeed
in every case as 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, led 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 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
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, slaveholders, land speculators,
to 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 slaveholders 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, that 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 a hundred
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 against "big government."
Of course, the alarms about "big government" did
not extend to the enormous subsidies to business. When, after
World War II, the aircraft industries, which had made enormous
profits during the war (92% of their expansion paid for by the
government), was in decline, Stuart Symington, Assistant Secretary
of War for Air, wrote to the president of Aircraft Industries:
"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 carne and has never stopped coming.
Billions in subsidies each year to produce fighters and bombers.
When Chrysler ran out of cash in 1980, the government stepped
in to help. (Try that 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. For example, The New York Times reported
in 1984 that the twelve top military contractors paid an average
tax rate of 1.5% while middle-class Americans were paying 15%
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
recently he called for billions more for the military budget,
he did not refer to his campaign declaration that "the era
of big government is over."
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 Ellen Lease in 1890: "...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 is 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
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? Sixty-one 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?" over 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 work 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.I. Bill
of Rights, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and loans to small
So let's not hesitate to say: we want the government, responding
to the Lincolnian definition of democracy, to organize, with the
efficiency that it ran the G.I. Bill, that it runs Social Security
and Medicare, a system that gives free medical care to everyone
and pays for it out of a reformed tax system which 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
"Big government" in itself is hardly the issue.
That is here to stay. The only question is: whom will it serve?
Zinn On History