“If we know that individual actions are just, that knowledge is all we need in order to make a moral assessment. A supposedly deleterious change in the statistical measure of the societal distribution of income or wealth, should it occur, is simply irrelevant.” (p. 7)

“If we cared nothing for our own freedom, we might be inclined to accept the welfare state’s ministrations with gratitude, but even then our contentment would be disturbed by the large extent to which the government fails to deliver what it promises. To be blunt, the government’s protection is largely fraudulent.” (p. 16)

“Apart from the troubling moral questions raised by redistribution, the issue is far more complicated than ordinarily considered. Beyond the naked fact that T [a taxpayer] pays taxes to the government and the government gives goods, services, or money to R [a recipient], at least nineteen other consequences occur when the government redistributes income.” (p. 22)

“With its bewildering, incoherent mass of new expenditures, taxes, subsidies, regulations, and direct government participation in productive activities, the New Deal created so much confusion, fear, uncertainty, and hostility among businessmen and investors that private investment and hence overall private economic activity never recovered enough to restore the high levels of production and employment enjoyed during the 1920s.” (p. 34)

“Whatever its merits as an operating assumption in positive political analysis, the proposition that the people who wield political power are just like the rest of us is manifestly false.” (p. 41)

“In the United States today, . . . two revolving factions of a one-party state farcically masquerade as authentic alternatives, the one specializing in crushing economic freedom and the other concentrating on crushing every other form of freedom . . . .” (p. 47)

“Were I to rank the presidents, I would not quite turn the historians’ ranking on its head, but I would move in that direction. Certainly Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and Lyndon Johnson belong at the bottom for their statist economic policies as well as their utterly catastrophic war policies.” (p. 55)

“Rather than supplying the quality assurance that people value, the FDA serves, in a sense, as a central planner in the quality-assurance sector of the medical goods economy. The agency imposes a body of rigid, one-size-fits-all rules, binding on everyone regardless of the actual individual differences of people’s medical conditions, personal preferences, and attitudes toward bearing risk. . . . [It] almost certainly brings about vastly more suffering and premature death than would occur in its absence.” (p. 61)

[Regulatory] harmonization holds the potential to harm multitudes. It is a species of cartelization, and just as successful cartelization in ordinary markets harms the consumers, so successful cartelization across regulatory jurisdictions tends ultimately to harm all those whose freedom of peaceful, voluntary action is thereby restrained.” (p. 80)

“Notwithstanding its changing forms and temporal fluctuations, the penchant for acting as self-righteous busybodies has animated the bourgeoisie of this country ever since the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock in 1620. Because this proclivity provides an irresistible opportunity for politicians to promote their own interests at public expense, one must expect that we Americans are doomed to an endless procession of costly, futile, and destructive crusades.” (pp. 86-87)

“The drug war has been a bonanza even to law-abiding cops, as the altered forfeiture laws have given the police free rein to seize private property more or less at will. . . . If in the process of padding their budgets the police arrest a throng of street-corner entrepreneurs who subsequently land in prison, well, c’est la guerre.” (p. 98)

“A just government, one that confines itself to protecting the citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and property, has no need for figures on the distribution of personal income; no need for data on international trade and finance; no need for national income and product accounts. None of these statistics can assist in the defense of the citizens’ just rights.” (p. 120)

“Who can dispute that the governments of the United States constitute the most voracious tax system in the history of mankind? In the year 2000, those governments succeeded in laying hands on more than $3 trillion—almost $11,000 each for the 275 million men, women, and children resident in the country.” (p. 143)

“The Export-Import Bank is just another contrivance to shift wealth from the politically weak and alienated to the politically strong and connected, while sanctifying the transfer with incantations of economic humbug.” (p. 145)

“ The government’s organization of the economy for war, more than anything else, determined how the central government grew in the United States in the twentieth century, and conscription, more than anything else, determined how the government organized the economy for war.” (p. 164)

“In the twentieth century, the American people came to expect, tolerate, and in many instances demand that the Normal Constitution be displaced during national emergencies. Government officials understand this public disposition and accordingly seek their own objectives within the altered constraints.” (p. 211)

“The U.S. economy during [World War II] was exactly what the slogan said, an arsenal. As such, it produced what the authorities ordered, using the materials and methods they required and charging the prices they dictated.” (p. 225)

“Leading defense contractors have undertaken to broaden the markets for their products in connection with the so-called war on terrorism. However, . . . as usual, defending the empire gets the bulk of the budget, whereas defending the American people at home gets a relatively wee amount, and the defense companies, with bloodhound noses for taxpayer loot, follow the scent of the money.” (p. 263)

“So long as the prevailing ideology imposes no general (that is, constitutional-level) constraint on the size, scope, and power of government, then the continued growth of government will flow naturally from the workings of the present political economy . . . . Why should that deeply institutionalized process cease to operate?” (p. 293)


Americans currently are suffocating under the weight of a vast hodgepodge of statutes, regulations, court rulings, official bureaus, police and military organizations, and assorted authoritative busybodies—in a word, under Leviathan government. In a wide-ranging analysis of this Leviathan’s various aspects, Robert Higgs finds it to be for the most part wasteful, destructive, and vicious-an insult to every genuinely humane sentiment and ideal-and he concludes that Edmund Burke was right when he declared that “the thing itself is the abuse.”

If we had to use a single word to describe what is fundamentally wrong with government today, the best word would be fraud. Government is not what it claims to be (competent, protective, and just), and it is what it claims not to be (bungling, menacing, and unjust). In actuality, it is a vast web of deceit and humbug, and not for a good purpose, either. Indeed, its true purposes are as reprehensible as its noble claims are false. Its stock in trade is pretense. Yet the velvet glove of its countless claims of benevolence scarcely conceals its iron fist of violence and threats of more violence. It wants to be loved, but it will settle for being feared. The one thing it will not do is simply leave us alone.

A major part of it is the vaunted welfare state, a hydra-headed legal and bureaucratic monstrosity that purports to protect people from every common adversity of life, while redistributing income and wealth in serene disregard of that redistribution’s many destructive consequences for the entire society. This gigantic undertaking fails every moral and practical test imaginable. Nor do its consequences take their toll once and for all. Far worse, they eat away at the moral, social, and economic foundations of what was once a considerably more honest and self-reliant culture.

Efforts to build Leviathan have been led by several “great presidents.” Higgs debunks the myths that surround these and other political leaders. The most renowned of all was, and remains, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who continues to serve as a model for ambitious and unscrupulous aspirants to the presidency. Roosevelt, however, was not the strong, compassionate, and charismatic hero portrayed in the prevailing myth; instead, he was a wily and successful politician whose intelligence, knowledge, compassion, and sense of responsibility fell far short of excellence. His New Deal embraced policies that prolonged the Great Depression for years, causing enormous unnecessary suffering. Later presidents, aping Roosevelt, failed to achieve his enduring mass popularity but came close to equaling his duplicity and mendacity.

The gap between government’s pretense of protecting people and the reality of its harming them is perhaps nowhere greater than in relation to the Food and Drug Administration, a power-grabbing agency whose expansive regulations, far from saving lives, have resulted in hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, unimaginable human suffering, and the suppression of liberty in the most intimate areas of human life. Unfortunately, by means of “regulatory harmonization,” such regulation is now spreading across the world, and its global adoption will certainly crush individual choice and confine every country’s population in an iron cage of paternalistic tyranny from which no place of refuge will remain on earth.

Not content with such faux-protective “soft” despotism, the U.S. government has exercised a steel-hard variety in its never-ending “war on drugs,” a destructive assault on individual liberties that has had, and continues to have, immense adverse effects throughout the world. Among other outrages, the governments of the United States at all levels have now jammed more than 2 million persons into jails and prisons and subjected 5 million others to probation, parole, or some other form of “correctional supervision,” in large part by conducting the drug war. The government’s true depravity is captured in its menacing command: when I say pee, you pee. Not even the composition of people’s urine now escapes the government’s despicable violation of their natural rights.

Proceeding hand in hand with this futile crusade we find an advancing secular therapeutic ethos in which every human misstep represents a “disease” from which only a government-imposed treatment can save us. Thus, a cultural development that might otherwise have been dismissed as merely misguided or silly has greased the skids for ever more intrusive government actions that now penetrate homes, schools, courtrooms, prisons, and a variety of other venues in a quest to save people from their insufficient self-esteem and the manifold maladies to which that insufficiency supposedly gives rise-all such programs resting, as usual, on threats of government violence.

Government management of the economy, which has been actively conducted in the United States since the early twentieth century, presupposes that the government knows what to do and that it has an incentive to take the proper actions, but such presuppositions have no firm basis in reality. In fact, the government excels at only one thing: stripping the populace of its rights and of trillions of dollars in the form of taxes, tolls, fees, confiscations, and other takings. Sad to say, other governments are in relative terms even more rapacious. Higgs presents evidence that contradicts the thesis that the growth of government has been checked in the economically advanced countries. Not only have government revenues, expenditures, and borrowings continued to mount, but government regulatory burdens have grown apace.

If governments have come to wield vast economic powers, they have done so in large part as a result of the policies and practices they first adopted during great national emergencies, especially during the two world wars, which provided plausible occasions for the adoption of multiple government economic-management schemes-everything from interference in labor-management relations to wage-price controls to central allocations of raw materials and, worst of all, the conscription of men to serve in the armed forces. Strange to say, the government has always bragged about plunging the nation into World War II, in no small part because it “got the economy out of the depression.” Higgs shatters this tenacious myth by demonstrating that economic conditions in the United States during the war had nothing in common with economic prosperity as commonly understood. Military Keynesianism, which has flourished for decades, has no basis in defensible data or in sound economic analysis.

After World War II ended, the U.S. government quickly launched into fighting the Cold War. For the major players of the military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC), this was a tremendously good deal, so good that when the Cold War ended, the MICC’s movers and shakers decided to keep plowing ahead as if nothing had changed-same force structure, same kinds of weapons, same chronic waste, abuse, and mismanagement. The attacks of September 11, 2001, ought to have revealed this military house of cards for the sham that it is, but when government runs the show, cause and effect don’t work normally. No heads rolled; nobody was punished for failing to protect the American people. Instead, the MICC was rewarded by the biggest run-up of military spending in a generation, proving once again that for the national-security apparatus, no failure goes unrewarded.

Confronting the widespread belief that the era of big government is over, or soon will be, Higgs offers evidence that this anticipation represents little more than wishful thinking. In his view, the U.S. government continues to grow stronger, not weaker, all things considered. Perhaps the most important reason for the ongoing growth of government is ideological; it is that so few people in the United States now really give a damn about living as free men and women. After a century of fighting a losing battle against their own governments, they have accommodated themselves to the government’s victory. In effect, they have finally accepted that the best course open to them is simply to label their servitude as freedom and to concentrate on enjoying the creature comforts that the government still permits them to possess. They may be slaves, but they are affluent slaves, and that condition is good enough for them.

About the Author

Robert Higgs is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal, The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University and has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College and Seattle University. He is the author of The Transformation of the American Economy 1865-1914, Competition and Coercion, and Crisis and Leviathan, recognized as one of the classic works on the growth and abuse of government power.

His articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle. He has been a guest on NPR, NBC, ABC, C-SPAN, CBN, CNBC, and Radio Free Europe. He lectures at universities and conferences around the world.

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