Everyone knows that the U.S. government has grown in size, scope, and power during the past century, but how did this breathtaking transformation come about? Crisis and Leviathan offers a coherent, multi-causal explanation, guided by a novel analytical framework firmly grounded in historical evidence.
Integrating the contributions of scholars in diverse disciplines, including history, law, political philosophy, and the social sciences, this book makes compelling reading for all those who seek to understand the transformation of Americas political economy over the past century. One of the most important books ever written on the nature of government power, Crisis and Leviathan is a powerful work of first-rate scholarship whose message becomes more important with each passing day.
Foreword by Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.
Preface to the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition
Preface to the Original Edition
PART I. Framework
1. The Sources of Big Government: A Critical Survey of Hypotheses
2 . How Much Has Government Grown? Conventional Measures and an Alternative View
3. On Ideology as an Analytical Concept in the Study of Political Economy
4. Crisis, Bigger Government, and Ideological Change: Toward an Understanding of the Ratchet
PART II. History
5. Crisis under the Old Regime, 18931896
6. The Progressive Era: A Bridge to Modern Times
7. The Political Economy of War, 19161918
8. The Great Depression: An Emergency More Serious Than War
9. The Political Economy of War, 19401945
10. Crisis and Leviathan: From World War II to the 1980s
11. Retrospect and Prospect
Appendix to Chapter 2
Appendix to Chapter 9
About the Author
- How did a federal government that was originally conceived to be one of limited, enumerated powers become so large and powerful in the twentieth century? Robert Higgss Crisis and Leviathan puts forth an illuminating explanation consistent with historical facts, economic understanding, and the role of ideology in social change: A series of national crises eroded the traditional barriers to governments growth, leaving legacies that have endured long after each crisis passed. This ratchet effect also helps explain the decline of economic liberties and the failure of efforts to fundamentally reform government.
- By conventional quantitative measures, the U.S. government was three to six times as large in the 1980s as it was in 1900. This sounds like a huge increase, but in fact those estimates understate the enormity of the transformation. Thats because quantitative measures (e.g., federal expenditures as a percentage of GDP) overlook the profound qualitative changes that have occurred, such as increased involvement in matters formerly considered constitutionally "off limits" to the federal government.
- Most explanations for the growth of the U.S. government have failed because theyve tried to reduce complex historical change to a single causal factor. To understand why government has grown, one must understand how it has grown. This requires a thorough, multidisciplinary examination of the motives and capabilities of key government officials and opinion leadersand of the causes and effects of ideological changeespecially during national crises, when the traditional barriers to government growth are weakened.
- Crisis alone does not cause government to grow; certain ideological conditions must also be present. The economic depression of 18931896 is instructive. President Grover Cleveland faced pressure to provide relief for the unemployed, support an income tax, and abandon the gold standard, but he opposed those measures because they clashed with his classical-liberal ideology. He and his allies were victorious because the ideological climate was not conducive to an expansion of the role of the federal government.
- The Progressive Era laid the foundation for the federal curtailment of economic liberties during World War I. The federal income tax and the Federal Reserve System were two key legacies of the Progressive Era, but even more important was the profound shift that occurred in the thinking of the nations intellectuals and business leaders. Some business leaders benefited greatly from the governments restriction of competition and other wartime controls.
- FDRs attempts to pull the economy out of the Great Depression failed for many of the same reasons that Hoovers efforts failed. In the Depressions early years, President Hoover raised federal spending and dissuaded business leaders from letting wage rates fall with the contraction of spending caused by a rash of bank failures. Unfortunately, rather than abandon this course, President Roosevelt pursued it on a bolder scale, astutely manipulating the publics fears to push through his arch-activist New Deal agenda. Production for the private economy did not return to pre-Depression levels until after the conclusion of World War II.
- World War II and the Cold War secured exceptionally high profitability for defense contractors, who became a potent political lobby. During World War II, one hundred firms got two-thirds of the war business and just thirty-three got about half; General Motors alone got 8 percent. During the Cold War the ongoing development weapons systems, and the great migration of retired military officers into the defense industries, practically insured that the military-industrial complex would prosper.
Everyone knows that the U.S. government has grown in size and scope during the past century, but how did this breathtaking transformation come about?
In Crisis and Leviathan, economist and historian Robert Higgs shows how Big Government emerged from responses to national emergencies that occurred as attitudes about the role of government were changing dramatically. In particular, governmental responses to the Great Depression, two World Wars, the Cold War, and various minor crises (real or imagined) led to a host of new federal programs, activities, and functions that left legaciesincluding greater acceptance of bigger governmentthat endured long after each crisis passed. The result was not only a new baseline for further growth, but also a government more intrusive in the lives of ordinary citizens and more resistant to meaningful reform.
One of the most important books ever written on the nature of government power, Crisis and Leviathan is a powerful work of first-rate scholarship whose message has become more important in the twenty-five years since its original publication.
The book begins with a critique of competing explanations offered by scholars to account for the growth of the U.S. government since the early 1900s. No single cause explains the rise of Big Government in America, according to Higgs. He proposes a multi-causal theory that puts human agency in the drivers seat.
Big Government, he explains, is not One Big Nonhuman Thing with a unity of purpose; rather, it comprises many coexisting human institutions, each one rife with the struggles and rivalries of individuals who possess clashing objectives. Moreover, Big Government requires the support, or at least the toleration, of people outside of government; and some people are always circulating between the rulers and the ruled. Always, peoples ideologies shape their political behavior (a truism that many social scientists fail to incorporate into their analyses).
The growth of government, Higgs emphasizes, has been not a steady climb, but a rocky path punctuated by growth spurts during national military or economic crises, when the traditional barriers to the growth of government face tremendous pressures. Although increases of federal spending and governmental controls often subsided after a crisis ended, those episodes left institutional and ideological legacies that raised the secular growth rate of the government during subsequent, non-crisis years. This progression of two steps forward, one step back helps explain what Higgs calls the ratchet effect.
The rest of Crisis and Leviathan employs the framework established in the books beginning chapters to shed light on the pivotal events of twentieth-century America.
The Crisis of the 1890s
National emergencies alone do not cause the growth of government: ideological conditions that favor its growth must also be present. The economic crisis of 1893 to 1896 is illustrative, Higgs shows.
As the unemployment rate soared to 18 percent of the total workforce, legions of unemployed men marched toward Washington, D.C., demanding federal relief. President Grover Cleveland would have found it politically easy to accede to their demands, but doing so would have run counter to his conviction that the Constitution left such matters exclusively to local governments and private charity. He also resisted pressures to abandon the gold standard and to endorse legislation to reinstate the federal income tax.
Because Cleveland and his allies clung steadfastly to an ideology that espoused the rule of law, private property rights, and public peace, the old regime of classical liberalism withstood pressures for greater federal intervention in the economy.
The Progressive Era
The turn of the twentieth century ushered in the Progressive Era, during which the elites who shape public opinion increasingly embraced federal activism and derided traditional views that espoused free-market economic policies and limited government.
Perhaps the most striking transformation involved the attitudes of big businessmenrailway presidents, financiers, and captains of industryespecially among the Eastern elite. Some business leaders jumped on the Progressive bandwagon to serve their narrow material interests. Whatever their motives, big businessmen would play a key role in the new political economy.
World War I
Although government authority grew during the Progressive Era, as late as 1916 the American economy was still mostly a market system. U.S. reaction to the war in Europe, however, led to unprecedented federal intervention in the nations economic affairs.
It began with legislation, introduced before U.S. entry into the war, that regulated ocean shipping rates. Soon after, the government would operate competing ships and the President would gain authority to compel suppliers to sell to the government at reasonable prices or risk confiscation. Six weeks after the U.S. declaration of war, President Wilson signed into law the Selective Service Act, thereby saving the government the expense of paying soldiers a market wage. Government agencies such as the War Industries Board directed what came to be called war socialism: collectivist economic planning on an unprecedented scale.
Looming over everything was the ideological shift. Americans had won the war, or at least they had been on the winning side, and many attributed the defeat of the Central Powers to the wartime collectivism.
The Great Depression
The normalcy that returned after the armistice was eventually destroyed by the onset of the Great Depression. President Hoovers unprecedented interventions failed to revive the economy. President Roosevelt, a shrewder politician, relied on the emergency rationale and the wartime analogy to push through a host of programs during the frantic Hundred Days after he took office in March 1933. Wartime precedents helped enable new programs such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (modeled after Hoovers War Finance Corporation), the restrictive New Deal gold policy, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and agencies regulating agriculture and labor relations.
Most traditional restraints on federal power gave way. The Supreme Court struck down some legislation, but Roosevelt ultimately won: changes in the Courts composition led to a revolution in constitutional jurisprudence that weakened the protection of private property rights and gave federal economic regulation free rein.
The governmental response during the worst years of the Great Depression (19321933) left the most enduring legacies: federal lending for many different purposes; federal production and sale of electricity; federal manipulation of agricultural production, prices, and marketing; federal regulation of virtually every aspect of labor markets; a vast federal social insurance system; a plethora of anticompetitive federal laws; and a large variety of federal subsidiesthe list could go on.
The ideological legacy was even more important. Elite opinion no longer questioned the propriety of federal economic interventionduring emergencies or otherwise. The promise of social security and protection from the rigors of market competition became entrenched in the national mindset.
World War II
The power and managerial expertise acquired by the federal bureaucracy during the New Deal hastened the development of economic controls during the Second World War, mobilization for which began at least a year and a half before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In mid-1940, Congress expanded the powers of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, enabling the government to make loans to, or purchase the capital stock of, corporations involved in strategic and critical materials. The Selective Service Act, enacted in September 1940, not only established the nations first peacetime draft, but it also empowered the President to requisition supplies from private industry and to impose harsh penalties on noncompliant suppliers, including government takeover.
Congress broadened the Presidents discretionary authority to deal with private suppliers by passing the First War Powers Acts, enacted after Pearl Harbor, and the Second War Powers Act, enacted in March 1942. The latter also enabled the Treasury Department to use the Federal Reserve System as a virtual printing press to help finance the governments ever-growing deficits. This new power was too great to resist, and the ensuing price inflation prompted the passage of the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942. A presidential edict issued on April 8, 1943, brought virtually all wages and prices under federal control for the duration of the war.
The wartime chaos also created labor unrest. On January 12, 1942, the President created the National War Labor Board, patterned after the War Labor Board of World War I, to resolve disputes by mediation or arbitration. The board possessed the authority to enforce its decisions through plant seizures. Eventually dozens of seizures were ordered, some involving entire industries.
Although much of the administrative apparatus of control was quickly dismantled after the war ended, a host of legacies remained, including the government-financed plants and equipment; the Employment Act of 1946; the Taft-Hartley Act; the Selective Service Act of 1948; the GI Bill; a voracious and effective federal income-tax system; and a massive foreign-aid program. Most importantly, the notion of a peacetime Constitution was lost, and the prevailing ideology moved toward the acceptance of a large role for government in the economy.
Crisis and Leviathan: Retrospect and Prospect
Three decades of crisis after crisis left the free-market system constrained and corrupted almost beyond recognition. They also established a pattern, repeated during subsequent so-called crises, including the urban crisis, the environmental crisis, the consumerist crisis, and the sundry crises associated with the decades-long emergency known as the Cold War. Each episode reinforced shifts in public beliefs and attitudes about the proper role of government.
What to make of this? The economist Joseph Schumpeter predicted that the free-market system would degenerate into socialism. Despite his powers of observation, he overlooked the eagerness and ability of Big Business to secure government subsidies and barriers to competition. He also overlooked the significance of a governmental class whose material and ideological interests diverged from those ascribed to the bourgeoisie and the working classes. A climate of ongoing national emergencies helped transform the U.S. political economy into an example, not of socialism, as Schumpeter had predicted, but of a type of collectivism that maintains the pretense of private property rights: call it participatory fascism.
The prospect of reversing course is not encouraging, but neither is the continued growth of Leviathan foreordained, Higgs concludes.
If ideologies are not mere superstructure, he writes, if ideas can gain sway through rational consideration in the light of historical evidence and moral persuasion, then there remains a hope, however slight, that the American people may rediscover the worth of individual rights, limited government, and a free society under a true rule of law.
Crisis and Leviathan is a book of major importance, thoroughly researched, closely argued, and meticulously documented. It should be high on the reading list of every serious student of the American political system.
Political Science Quarterly
Crisis and Leviathan is an important, powerful, and profoundly disturbing book.
James M. Buchanan, Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, Journal of Economic History
... Higgs refuses to treat political, cultural, or ideological aspects of historical reality as irrelevant to the study of economic development.
Reviews in American History
Crisis and Leviathan is a thoughtful and challenging work.
By focusing on certain critical episodes in American history, Robert Higgs has documented the remarkable and alarming growth of Big Government. His ambitious work covers the subject in great detail and in a way that will appeal to both scholars and a more general audience. . . . The conclusion of Higgss analysis is a thoughtful but disturbing view of American prospects. Whether traditional constitutional restraints or the unique operation of a mixed economy can avert what he and others fear as a march into socialism or fascism no one knows. As we consider the future, Higgs offers enlightenment if not optimism.
Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., Professor of History, State University of New York, Albany
How big government gets that way: It takes over new turf in time of crisis, then hangs on to much of it after the crisis is over.
In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, everyone should read Robert Higgs's economic classic Crisis and Leviathan. The critical warning of this masterpiece is that government always uses a crisisfrom the Civil War, to the Great Depression, to World War IIto expand power, not just during the emergency, but afterward as well. Emergencies tend to ratchet up the cost and power of government permanently. That expansion of government authority is especially unwise now given that when this coronavirus fiasco is finally over, it may go down in history as one of the great government screw-ups in American history. Thats saying a lot.
Stephen J. Moore, Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Project for Economic Growth, Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, Heritage Foundation
Robert Higgs is a first-rate economist and economic historian who sets out a provocative thesisnamely, that governments exploit crises (real and fabricated) as excuses to grow and to strip people of their wealth and liberties.
Donald J. Boudreaux, Professor of Economics, George Mason University
A superb history. . . . I can think of no more important reading than Crisis and Leviathan, aside from the Constitution itself.
The American Spectator
One well-established thesis of modern political science and economic history is that government not only grows bigger in periods of crisis, particularly during wars and economic upheavals, but that any later reversals never reset the dials back to the same level as before. The book Crisis and Leviathan, by Robert Higgs, provides an extensive historical review and analysis behind this paradigm for the so-called ratchet effect behind ever-increasing government power that lives long beyond the periodic crises that help fuel it. The balance between Americas civil society, market economy, and federalist system on the one hand and its more centralized, bureaucratized welfare/warfare state on the other hand has been dramatically altered by political upheavals throughout historyincluding the Civil War, both world wars, and both the Great Depression and Great Recession.
Thomas P. Miller, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Economist Robert Higgs has presented the theory of a ratchet effect to explain the power and scope of government during times of crisis. Higgs shows that crisis situations afford the state the opportunity to stretch its power into areas of life that were before beyond its reach. The lesson from his work is clear.
The most masterful and persuasive treatment of the role of war in making big government bigger and liberty less secure is Robert Higgss book, Crisis and Leviathan.
Orange County Register
Crisis and Leviathan is a blockbuster of a book, one of the most important of the last decade. It is that rare and wondrous combination: scholarly and hard-hitting, lucidly written and libertarian as well.
Murray N. Rothbard, late S.J. Hall Distinguished Professor of Economics, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Insightful, compelling, and clear, Higgs breaks new ground in explicating the most important socio-political trend of our timethe growth of American government.
That big government grew from crises is not a new idea, but just how that happened is an astounding story, and the superb account that Higgs gives of that process may come as something of a shock to his readers.
Jonathan R. T. Hughes, late Professor of Economics, Northwestern University
His thesis can be simply stated. Crises such as depressions and wars produce calls for the expansion of government. The increase in the public sector that occurs is more fundamental than the budgetary growth required to deal with the crisis. The essence of Big Government is a wide scope of effective authority over economic decision-making. Authority comes first: no authority, then no taxing, spending, or employment. Once the crisis has passed, government shrinks back, but the new trend line of government growth is above the old. In short, a ratchet operates. . . . a common feature of most crises is the governments wish to impose large exactions on citizens without the citizens perceiving all the costs. One way to do this is through a command economy using such devices as a military draft, price controls, and direct regulatory orders. Given the democratic nature of our government, such policies can only be successful if people are convinced that they are a patriotic necessity required to overcome the crisis. Higgs notes with sadness that success of such ideological campaigns and their capacity to influence attitudes toward government after the crisis has passed. For him, the ideal government is one which cannot hide the true opportunity costs of its policies, with the result, so Higgs believes, that government would not be able to become Big Government. Higgs is thus not a standard conservative thinker pushing for a large military budget and arguing against domestic, social welfare spending. Instead, he saves some of his scathing rhetoric for the military-industrial complex and the draft. . . it is refreshing to read a book with such an idiosyncratic perspectivea perspective that views Calvin Coolidge as the hero of the twentieth century simply because there is very little anyone can say about him. . . Higgs is at his best in illustrating how the rhetoric of war is used during peacetime emergencies such as the Depression to drum up enthusiasms for public policies."
Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization
Historically, government spending increases substantially in reaction to a serious national crisis and thereafter never falls back to pre-crisis levels, even once the instigating circumstances have passed. This ratchet effect, described with prescient clarity by Robert Higgs in his masterful book Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, is well established. Government spending, measured as a percentage of GDP, increased dramatically during the Great Depression and World War II, and thereafter never dropped back to pre-war, let alone pre-Depression figures. Similarly, federal spending has never retreated to pre-Sept. 11 levels, nor has it dipped below 20% of GDP since the 2008 financial crisis. Given the current figures being churned out by Washington, that is an ominous realization.
Everyone should read Robert Higgs economic classic Crisis and Leviathan. The critical warning is that government always uses a crisisfrom the Civil War to the Great Depression to World War IIto expand power, not only during the emergency but also afterward.
Crisis and Leviathan is a blockbuster of a book, one of the most important of the last decade. It is that wondrous and rare combination: scholarly and hard-hitting, lucid and libertarian as well.
- One of The Five Best Introductory Books on Public Choice