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The Relics of Intervention: 6. Conclusion: The Relic of an Idea


Dr. Carson has written and taught extensively, specializing in American intellectual history. He is the author of several books and a frequent contributor to The Freeman and other scholarly journals.

Many interventions which have been embodied in programs that go back at least to the early twentieth century are still with us as relics in 1982. Some even go back to the nineteenth century, to a period not covered by this series. For example, the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was authorized to regulate the railroads, was set up in the 1880s. Today, it is a relic not only of regulatory zeal but also of a time when the railroads were the dominant mode of land transportation. But the most heady intervention has come in the twentieth century, and some of it going back to the early years of the century is still very much with us. The Federal Reserve system, which antedates World War I, was supposed to regulate the money supply, and it is still busily trying to do that. The graduated income tax, which dates from the same period, is still being used to penalize profit making and other earnings, a habit formed during World War I.

A few interventions have been permitted to expire. For example, The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, relief programs of the New Deal, were abandoned and have never since been revived.

Mostly, though, interventions once undertaken have been continued in one form or another. Some, such as government-subsidized low-income housing, go through various permutations as enthusiasm for them waxes and wanes. Even crop subsidies and parity programs are still going on. Meanwhile, new interventions, such as environmental protection and urban renewal, have had their days when they occupied the center of the stage. However dramatic the failures of intervention, hope seems to spring eternal in the breast of the interventionists that some new twist or turn, some modification of the mechanism of intervention, some new wrinkle, will bring success.

The Basic Idea

Ultimately, though, all these particular programs of intervention, even all those that survive today as relics, are less important than something else. All these relics are but the progeny of another more enduring and persistent relic. It is, so to speak, the relic of relics. However thoroughly particular programs may be discredited, however great the failure of some government intervention, however disastrous some government effort, the bent to intervention continues unabated. Intervention is like the mythical hydra-headed serpent of ancient lore. It had nine heads. Chop off one of its heads, and two would come back in its place. There is one difference, however: what provides the animus for the hydra-like intervention is an idea. The relic that sustains all the other relics of intervention is the idea behind government intervention itself.

The idea behind intervention embraces the concept of an active role for government in society, and especially in the economy. That is, government should play an active role in shaping society and in directing the economy. While such a conception was not original with reformers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it did depart from the basic tradition for the/rote of government in America.

Herbert Hoover suggested on several occasions that a good analogy for grasping the traditional American conception was that of an umpire in baseball. Though this analogy has some pitfalls that might well be avoided, it can be illuminating when used carefully. The umpire is not supposed to participate in the game. His task is to enforce the rules. He is expected to be impartial in his rulings and not take sides between the teams. It is not his job to see that the game is close. He does not distribute or redistribute the players to see that the teams are even in strength. The umpire is there to settle disputes which arise, not to alter the course of the game by intruding himself into it. In that sense, his role is similar to the traditional role of government.

But a baseball game is a contrived situation. Its rules are conceived to make a contest of the game. In these things, it is not parallel to life, society, or economy. Moreover, the umpire looms much larger in a baseball game than Americans have generally conceived it would be desirable for government to do in their lives. The umpire is supposed to have all the players under surveillance during the whole course of the game. Such government surveillance would amount to tyranny. Moreover, in most cases, players have no role either in bringing the umpire into the decision-making role or in arriving at their own settlements without him. The traditional role of government in America is not at all like that.

Keeping the Peace

The primary role of government is to maintain the peace. It is activated when there is aggression, when one of the parties to a dispute calls upon it, or when life, liberty, or property are endangered. Except when fraud, violence, or disputes come to its attention, it remains passive. This is no doubt a somewhat idealized version of even the American tradition, but it is in basic accord with it.

By contrast, interventionists are moved by the conception of an active role for government, as I said. They see it as an active participant in the game, as it were, as continuously imposing its version of what ought to be, as reordering society and the economy. This active role for government is apparent in the following quotations from interventionists:

In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt said: “I believe that in every part of our complicated social fabric there must be either national or state control.”

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson said: “But we are coming now to realize . . . that the law has to step in and create new conditions under which we may live.”

General Hugh Johnson, head of the National Recovery Administration, declared: “The very heart of the New Deal is the principle of concerted action in industry and agriculture under government supervision looking to a balanced economy.”

President Roosevelt announced in 1933 that “We had a bad banking situation . . . . It was the Government’s job to straighten out this situation and do it as quickly as possible.”

In 1954, Arthur F. Burns, President Eisenhower’s Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, stated that “it is no longer a matter of serious controversy whether the Government should play a positive role in helping to maintain a high level of economic activity. What we de bate nowadays is not the need for controlling business cycles, but rather the nature of governmental action, its timing and its extent.” These statements affirm the belief in an active role for government, but they do not explain why.

Government action is the method; the why of intervention lies deeper. From one angle, thinkers became convinced of the necessity for government intervention because they lost confidence, or faith, in a natural order and in the social order which takes shape when men are free. From another angle, it is equally correct to say that many thinkers in the nineteenth century came to believe that the traditional order in society is unjust and that there are no natural laws working to produce order. Although there may be some ambiguity in the statement of it, Franklin D. Roosevelt laid hold of the crux of the changed outlook in these two sentences read to the Democratic Convention in 1932: “We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.” That is a way of saying, I think, that the only law is positive law, that the only laws are those promulgated by government. And, the only order that there can be is an order imposed by government. The point is nailed down by the next sentence, in which he declared that “the Federal Government will assume bold leadership . . . .”

Laws of Historical Development

These views were the culmination of a century-long social and economic analysis which preceded them. While it would not be practical to go into this in detail here, the conclusions toward which this analysis moved need at least to be pointed out. As many intellectuals rejected or abandoned the belief in a system of natural law-natural order they replaced it with a quest for the laws of historical development. They shifted their attention from the enduring order, if you will, to the laws of change and development. Economies, looked at in this way, tended to be viewed as particular developments, or the results of institutions at some stage of historical development.

At any rate, thinkers began to discern flaws in particular economies. Indeed, some discerned rather large flaws which, if allowed to go on unchanged, would produce catastrophic results. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were at the forefront, of course, of such analysts. Bourgeois arrangements, as they described them, led to the impoverishment of the proletariat, the concentration of wealth, monopoly, periodic depressions, and eventual revolution. Many other thinkers who did not share with Marx and Engels this apocalyptic vision for the future nonetheless described flaws and injustices in the working of the prevailing economic systems. By the end of the nineteenth century, many thinkers had come to the conclusion, from whatever premises, that government must intervene in economies and in societies in general in order to make justice prevail.

What made these interpretations plausible, so far as they were, were two ideas or ideals shared by such intellectuals, ideas which were usually implicit when they were not explicit. They were the belief in “social” justice and substantive equality. I say “social” justice because otherwise the phrase might be taken to mean something different from what it does. From time immemorial, justice has had to do with individuals getting their due. It was not called “individual” justice; it was called justice. Undoubtedly, there were senses, too, in which such justice was social, since it involved others quite often and involved means made available in society for attaining it. But it was not referred to as social justice.

“Social” Justice and Substantive Equality

“Social” justice is a class-oriented or collectivist concept. It refers to justice for some class, order, or group of people, such as “labor,” “the working class,” women, low income groups, ethnic minorities, or what have you. Such a concept makes a kind of sense if you start with, say, Marx’s Labor Theory of Value. Marx held that all value was imparted to goods by “labor.” It followed then, that labor should have the income from the sale of goods, and, if it did not, the system of division of the proceeds was unjust. Of course, Marx’s theory of value is nowhere conscientiously applied in an economy, nor could it be but for the briefest span of time. I cite it only to illustrate the fact that the idea of “social” has no built-in means of determining what is just. Justice for individuals is defined in terms of what is just, but justice for groups, if it is to have any meaning, must come from outside the concept.

The supplementary idea to which interventionists on behalf of “social” justice usually appeal is substantive equality. This, too, is basically a class or group concept. That is, it does not mean that each individual receives the same pay, income, and perquisites, or whatever, as every other in dividual. Rather, it tends to be interpreted to mean that all those of the same category, the same rank, the same education and experience, who do comparable work, and so on, should be paid the same. This concept of class or group equality is often modified or supplemented by such phrases as the “right to a decent wage” or “living income” for all groups and peoples. For example, notice the language in which President Roosevelt enunciated his “Economic Bill of Rights” in his annual message to Congress in 1944. He said, in part:

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident . . . .

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living . . . ;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health . . . .

The class concept is there in his references to farmers, industrial workers, and business. The ideal of substantive equality is muted but present in such phrases as “the right to a decent home.” Nor did Roosevelt leave in doubt his belief that to secure these rights would require government intervention. He said, “I ask the Congress to explore the means for implementing this economic Bill of Rights—for it is definitely the responsibility of the Congress so to do.”

The Call for intervention

The idea, then, which undergirds government intervention in the economy and society is this: That government must actively intervene in the economy to balance it and in society to bring justice; that government must continuously intervene else the disorders to which these are prone will reassert themselves; that the purpose for intervention is to provide “social” justice and substantive equality for classes, orders, and groups of people.

While this series has focused on intervention by government in the domestic economy, it has become increasingly clear since World War II that the penchant for intervention has many other dimensions. Even the extent of economic intervention was somewhat obscured in the 1930s by the depression framework of so much of the new government activity. So much legislation was passed as emergency and recovery measures that it was hardly clear what was to be more or less permanent and what temporary. It turned out, however, that about the only things temporary were acts ruled unconstitutional and the length of time that the money from particular appropriations lasted. By and large, then, economic intervention survived the depression and has been expanded over the years. But intervention has expanded far beyond the domestic economy.

International Intervention

It has become commonplace for the United States to intervene in various countries and conflicts around the world since World War II. The United Nations, located in and sponsored by the United States, was to have been the supreme instrument for collectivist intervention. From the beginning almost, however, UN interventionist efforts were usually stymied by Soviet vetoes. In consequence, Americans have usually intervened on their own or in concert with such other nations as would join them. Foreign Aid was the device most widely used to accomplish the intervention.

It may be objected that American intervention has usually been with the consent, and often by the invitation or request, of the governments of the countries. Granted, but that does not keep it from being intervention. Indeed, this only made it dual or multiple government intervention. The home government intervened in the lives of its own people with the help of the United States. It did so in myriad ways: by planning economic development, by augmenting its military power (and hence potential control over its people), by building public service facilities, and so on.

The underlying idea for intervention in other countries was roughly the same as for domestic intervention. It was to protect the weak from the strong, to redistribute wealth, to plan economies, and to establish, or move in the direction of, international “social” justice and substantive equality. Until all this has been done, things are conceived as being dangerously out of kilter. The thrust of communism gave added impetus to the intervention, of course. Just as some historians will have it that the New Deal programs circumvented domestic insurrection, perhaps even revolution, so it is alleged that the way to prevent communist revolutions is by interventions which support milder and more democratic socialism.

But domestic intervention in the United States has gone much beyond the economic intervention of earlier years since World War II. How far it has gone may be illustrated by an announcement on television recently. The announcer said that there is a Public Law which re quires that schools provide physical education for the handicapped who attend them. It is highly doubtful that in his wildest flights of imagination Franklin D. Roosevelt would have supposed that the Federal government had the power to lay down any such rules. After all, the public schools are the creatures of the states. Neither the Constitution itself nor precedent provided any opening for such a Federal intervention. Above all, such intervention was remote from New Deal concerns. This is a way of saying that intervention which was initially advanced as a cure for pressing national problems has now been worked into every nook and cranny of American life.

Judicial Activism

One of the sources of this extension was what has come to be called judicial activism. More broadly, it can be viewed as an extension to the courts of the interventionist idea of government as an active and shaping force on the American economy and society. This judicial activism flowered under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1950s and 1960s. In a series of landmark decisions, ranging from Brown vs. Board of Education to Gideon vs. Wainright to Baker vs. Carr the Supreme Court not only broke with precedent after precedent but also carved out an active role for the courts in reshaping America. No decision illustrates this more clearly than Baker vs. Carr (1962).

In Baker vs. Carr, and a string of Supreme Court decisions which followed it—Wesberry vs. Sanders, Reynolds vs. Sims, and Wright vs. Rockefeller—the Supreme Court claimed and asserted jurisdiction over states in the matter of apportionment and the determination of election districts. The principle which the Court elucidated was that each vote of each person should have as near equal weight as that of every other voter. No matter that this rule did not apply to the mode of selecting many of those in the Federal government, it was proclaimed as the operating principle for the states. Since that time, United States District Courts have occupied themselves with the superintending of state reapportionments so as to assure equality. That the discretionary powers of the states have been greatly reduced by these and numerous other Federal court interventions is undeniable.

By the mid-1960s, the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution had become virtually a dead letter. The Amendment reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” It was, and is, no longer clear what powers might not have been delegated to the United States, if the interpretation of recent courts be taken as the measure. Indeed, if my reading of the impact of these decisions is correct, the Tenth Amendment has been effectively reversed. This reversed reading would go something like this: “The powers not specifically reserved to the States or to the people are hereby delegated to the United States by the Constitution.”

The Great Society

At any rate, by the early 1960s there was no longer any likelihood of court restraint of all sorts of interventionist measures which Presidents might propose and Congresses might dispose. After all, if Federal courts were vested with such extensive powers, they were unlikely to deny powers of Congress to exercise those along lines they approved. One other major event, or series of events, set the stage for the greatest surge of interventionist programs since the New Deal. That surge came during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.

What set the stage for this surge of intervention was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November of 1963. There was no predetermined reaction built into that event itself. But the handling of it by television prepared the way for heady government action. For several days after the assassination, all regular television programs were canceled, and the networks devoted themselves to John F. Kennedy, his assassination, his life, his aims, and so on. He was lionized, made a hero, a symbol, an embodiment of American youth and ideals. The frustration he had experienced in getting his legislative recommendations through Congress became a wrong to be righted, and President Johnson became an instrument, for a time, to right those wrongs.

This was especially so in Civil Rights legislation. Otherwise, the Kennedy assassination may have provided some of the impetus to Johnson’s own War on Poverty and interventionist action which was supposed to lead to the Great Society. The following is not a complete list of the interventionist measures, nor was each of the measures entirely new, but it will give some idea of the scope of the intervention during the Johnson years.

Specific Measures Taken

In 1964, measures dealing with the following were passed: Inter-American Development Bank, Federal Airport Aid, Farm Program, Pesticide Controls, International Development Association, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Urban Mass Transit, Criminal Justice, Truth-in-Securities, Food Stamp, Housing Act, Interest Equalization, Wilderness Areas, Nurse Training, and Library Services.

But 1965 was an even better year for intervention. Fresh from a landslide victory over Goldwater and with comfortable margins for the Democrats in both houses of Congress, Johnson moved onward toward the Great Society with renewed vigor. Among the programs inaugurated (or newly funded) were Medicare, Aid to Education (first large scale Federal aid to elementary and high schools), Higher Education (inauguration of a general scholarship program for college students), Department of Housing and Urban Development created, Voting Rights, Heart, Cancer, Stroke Program, Law Enforcement Assistance, Mental Health Facilities, Vocational Rehabilitation, Arts and Humanities Foundation, Aid to Appalachia, Highway Beauty, Clean Air, Water Pollution Control, High Speed Transit, Manpower Training, Regional Development, Aid to Small Businesses, Water Desalting, Community Health Services, Juvenile Delinquency Control, and so on and on.

In the following years, there was Truth-in-Packaging, Teacher’s Corps, Asian Development Bank, Air Pollution Control, Urban Fellowships, Safety at Sea Treaty, Fair Housing, Commodity Exchange Rules, U. S. Grain Standards, International Monetary Reform, Vocational Education, and what have you? If anything was not authorized, controlled, subsidized, regulated, intervened in, messed with, studied, had a commission appointed about it, offered assistance, or sustained during these years it was surely an error of the head and not of the heart.

An Established Habit

The habit of government intervention is now deeply imbedded in our outlook. If a problem is identified that involves more than two people it has become almost second nature to expect government to do something about it. The promises that promoted intervention have given rise to great expectations. A picture of government has been presented which would have it to be a concerned and almost loving organization, dispensing “human services,” as the argot has it, and ready to meet all and sundry needs. It is a seductive notion. But those who believe it are doomed to disappointment when they come athwart actual government. The gap between expectations and reality constantly breeds surliness and cynicism, if I discern aright. Government could not meet all the expectations that have been aroused, and what it does falls far short usually of the hopes and longings of those who depend on it.

Here is an incident which may illustrate the point. Several years ago I broke my wrist. During the time when I was wearing the cast I had occasion to go to the bank to talk to an officer of the bank. He was busy when I arrived, so I sat down in a waiting alcove until he was free. The man next to me was black, and he undertook to engage me in conversation, or, more precisely, to share his complaints with me. He noted that my arm was in a cast and pointed out that he had broken a limb (I have forgotten which) at some time in the past. I had great difficulty understanding what he was saying, both because he spoke in spasmodic rhythms which my ears refused to sort into words and because, if my suspicions were well founded, he was nearly drunk. As well as I could make out, his complaint was that he did not receive as much government or other aid as he should have to help him get through his difficulties with a broken limb. He alleged that the reason for this was discrimination against Blacks. In order to substantiate this, or so I surmised, he wanted to know what sort of help I had received.

My irritation had got the better of me by that time, and I asked him, rather sharply, I think, what he wanted of me. My voice must have risen above the mandatory hush which prevails in banks at all times, for one of the bank personnel came forward to deal with the man. He asked him his business, told him the bank had nothing for him at that time, and led him away as gently as possible. Although I was in no mood to explain it, it happens that I had neither received, asked for, nor expected any government aid to help me through the trials of a broken arm. I have a private hospitalization and surgical policy which paid most of the medical costs. Otherwise, I managed as best I could, failing even to take advantage of the government’s Bent Coathanger Program to enable those with fractures to scratch under casts when it itches.

The Disappointing Results

One of my reasons for telling this story is its man-bites-dog aspect. Many whites are convinced that Blacks are the prime beneficiaries of government welfare programs. By contrast, here was one black man, at least, apparently convinced that he had been short-changed in his quest for aid because of discrimination against Blacks. All he knew, I suspect, was that the government was spending a lot of money, providing a lot of aid, and he wasn’t getting much of it. He was right, of course, on all counts. So are most of the others, of whatever race or color, who believe much the same.

Which brings me to my main point, namely, that government aid is disappointing and government intervention is a failure. Government aid must disappoint most who fasten their hopes upon it, because government resources are limited. However large the appropriations, the benefits are almost always a disappointing dribble when they have been distributed to all the recipients. Beyond that, when “social” justice is the animating purpose, help for individuals is secondary. It is classes and groups that are supposed to be benefited. Thus, benefits are arbitrarily distributed, and such help as any receive depends upon the category in which they fall.

Above all, though, government intervention is a failure. Governments cannot balance economies. They can only disrupt, distort, and unbalance them. They cannot intervene so as to provide a flexible money supply which will meet all needs. They can only provide a system in which the money supply is alternately expanded and contracted, causing booms and busts, among other things. Government intervention cannot provide parity for farmers, full employment for workers, solvency for shopkeepers, just prices for purchasers, and all the goodies that have been promised over the years. Government has no magic wand that it can wave to cure all the ills of a society. Even if government be vested with plenary powers so that it is inevitably tyrannical, it cannot do these things.

The Illusion Persists

Government intervention is a relic. It is a relic of the heated dreams of nineteenth century intellectuals who professed the notion that they could by taking thought build a just society. It is a relic of an unwarranted belief that government action was the cure for the ills of man. It is a relic of communist and fascist national planning. It is a relic of the discredited hopes of collectivists. Even before interventionists had gained full sway in America the idea was already producing its totalitarian fruit in Europe. It is a relic of the contradiction that by doing injustice and wrongs to individuals “social” justice can be achieved. It is a relic of a faith in an imposed substantive equality which can never have any more substance than a reflection in water. It is a relic today of politicians who know of no other way to get elected than to buy votes with our money, raising once again expectations by their promises which they cannot fulfill.

Nonetheless, the relics will survive, the programs will continue, and new ones will be conceived so long as the idea that gives rise to the interventions is believed. So long as people believe that governments must intervene to balance the economy, to impose equality, to bring “social” justice, to bring order out of disorder, we will continue to have such programs. In the final analysis, so long as so many continue to believe that when there is a problem or difficulty government must do something, intervention will continue apace.


September 1982

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