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Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2002 / 8 Shevat, 5762

Michael Barone

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Consumer Reports

"New kind of war" will bring new kind of result: No feeding the welfare state --
Several commentators are predicting--some gleefully, some with foreboding--that the war against terrorism will create a climate of opinion favorable to big government. They have some history on their side: World War II inaugurated the era of big government in America, and Britain's wartime Beveridge Report laid the groundwork for the socialist welfare state established after 1945. But the war on terrorism has not so far and, I think, will not produce an appetite for bigger government in the United States, for two reasons.

The first is that the war has not yet and seems very unlikely to increase the size and the scope of the state. In World War II, government spending, four-fifths of it for defense, absorbed 45% of the gross national product. In the U.S., defense spending before Sept. 11 amounted to 2.9% of the gross domestic product. That number may increase a bit, but not too much: Current projections are that defense spending will increase from around $280 million to $320 million, a 14% increase. Our incredibly prosperous economy has long supported a military which, while not as large as candidate George W. Bush suggested he would like, has the men and materiel to defeat an enemy in a landlocked country 7,000 miles away with minimal casualties.

To be sure, more men and materiel may be needed elsewhere, particularly if we take on Iraq. But defense spending is likely to remain below the levels of the mid-1980s (7% of GDP) or early 1960s (11%).

This means that government is not likely to intrude on and dominate the civilian economy as it did in World War II. Then government rationed scarce commodities (even coffee, announced a few days before the 1942 off-year election); it converted factories to wartime production; it raised taxes to a top rate of 88%; it drafted men into a military which swelled to 12 million. People got used to big government, and while they resented some restrictions (FDR's Democrats lost quite a few seats in Congress after coffee was rationed), they also developed a sense of trust in the leaders of large organizations--big government primarily, but also big business and big labor--that would provide critical support for expansion of government after the war.

Nothing like that seems in prospect now. There will be no draft. The military, prizing certain skills and wishing to maintain morale, is against conscription. Far from demanding more of our money, President Bush insists on letting previously enacted tax cuts go into effect and calls for even more tax cuts.

The second reason the war is unlikely to produce a demand for big government is that attitudes toward increasing the size of government have not changed. True, respect for government--and for just about every other institution as well, except perhaps the press--has increased. In a Sept. 25-27 Washington Post poll, 64% of respondents said they trusted the federal government to do what is right most of the time or virtually always. That is the highest level of trust expressed since 1966, and far above the 20% to 34% who so responded in the Clinton years. And in a November CBS News poll, 55% said that government has a positive impact on "most people's lives," up from 37% in May 2000.

But that response surely reflected attitudes toward the part of the government most people were focused on--President Bush's national security team and the military. When asked whether they wanted a smaller government providing fewer services or a larger government providing many services, respondents called for smaller government, by a 48% to 39% margin in an October CBS News poll. This is similar to poll results over the last several years.

Why haven't voters moved toward bigger government? Probably because of the nature of the war. The war against the Taliban was won not by lumbering infantry but by high-tech machines and high-skill Special Forces. Precision bombing and real-time communication turned out to be far better in Afghanistan than they were even in the Gulf War. The military has incorporated the high-tech revolution that has been the work primarily of the private sector, and with great adaptability and ingenuity. (Perhaps the Clinton administration deserves some credit from its critics for this.)

Special Forces soldiers or CIA agents on the ground, with skills every bit as impressive as those of private sector technogeeks, were able to relay global positioning satellite coordinates of enemy troops and equipment to fliers of 40-year-old B-52s who were able to rain down bombs in exactly the right place. Old cargo planes and Navy fighters were adapted to be used as bombers. B-2s flew round trips from Missouri to bring American power to bear on the Taliban.

The military showed the same kind of adaptability and expertise we have seen in the private sector over the last 20 years. The deregulation of transportation and communications opened the way for innovations no one could have dreamed of 20 years ago and put a premium on flexibility and adaptability not often seen in the sclerotic big businesses of the 1970s. Junk bonds, leveraged buy-outs and other private sector innovations made corporate executives accountable and responsive to the marketplace in ways seldom seen in the 1970s.

The same pattern of change--allowing people more choices and imposing more accountability for those choices--in time reached parts of the public sector. The welfare reforms pioneered by Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin starting in 1987 and the police reforms pioneered by Rudolph Giuliani in New York City starting in 1994 led to huge and unpredicted reductions in welfare dependency and crime.

And the military, as we now know, was reforming itself as well, offering more initiative and choices to highly skilled men and imposing greater accountability as well. We see the same pattern in George W. Bush's performance as commander-in-chief: giving his subordinates great leeway (no presidential selection of bombing targets à la Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton) but imposing accountability and demanding results.

World War II, won by large masses of soldiers and mass production of relatively simple machines, all guided by decisions made by the leaders of a few large organizations, increased respect for centralized command-and-control policies, and big government. The war against terrorism, won so far by highly skilled Special Forces soldiers and high-tech machines, requiring individual flexibility and adaptability, should increase respect for systems that give people initiative and choices and hold them accountable for results.

That is the kind of government which George W. Bush has called for in his tax, education, Medicare and Social Security programs, to replace centralized command-and-control regimes which have performed as badly as the private sector of the 1970s. And that is the kind of government, I believe, that Americans, watching this war, will want.

Michael Baone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2001, Michael Barone