Rebuttal: 7 “Big Government” Laws That Strengthened America

Pierce Willans, a political science student at Seton Hall University, recently penned an article on PolicyMic that purports to demonstrate seven wonderful laws that “Big Government” has given us.  In this article, I would like to address each of these claims, in order to show that none of them actually improved the human condition more than if people had simply been left alone.

1) The Works Progress Administration

As Mr. Willians notes, the WPA was a New Deal infrastructure project that was designed to provide employment. The WPA ended up paying out more than $10 billion for 13.7 million person-years of employment.  The problem here is that there is absolutely no way to gauge whether all of those man hours were spent productively.  I can employ one group of people to dig ditches, and then another to fill them back up, yet the human condition will be decreased by this endeavor due to the wasted resources.  At the time, critics called the program a massive democrat vote buying scheme. It was even ridiculed in popular songs of the day.

Does anyone think a private competitive business would spend billions on projects without calculating potential rates of return?  Had the state left those resources available to the market, it is safe to say they would have been more productively employed.  This is true of any scheme that involves the spending of stolen money.  Those who earn money through voluntary trade have proven that their work has improved the human condition, or else people wouldn’t have given them their money in the first place. If public works projects actually improved the human condition as much as is claimed, Maoist China and the Soviet Union should have experienced a tremendous economic boom, rather than mass famine and poverty. Frederic Bastiat expounds on this problem in his epic work, “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.”

2) The G.I. Bill

The G.I. Bill is responsible for driving up the cost of tuition and the creation of accrediting bodies that have turned our systems of higher education into state managed propaganda mills. Further, it is a dubious proposition to claim that the G.I. Bill was responsible for the dramatic increase in college attendance following WWII. Economist Thomas DiLorenzo notes that, “There’s a myth that most veterans would not have attended college without federal government help. In fact, myriad programs existed at all levels of society. Virtually every major church, civic organization, and large corporation raised money to provide them, and most states established loan programs as well.”

The accrediting bodies, that were formed in order to decide which colleges would be eligible for G.I. Bill grants, morphed themselves into political agents of the state.  Citing J. Hillis Miller, the New York education commissioner, from DiLorenzo’s article,“Individual courses as well as whole curriculums” must be “attuned to the new tempo of society.”  Traditionalists will fight “a losing battle” because “any postwar nostalgic yearning for a college curriculum as it used to be is unlikely to be realized.” “Higher education may have to lose its life in order to find it again,” he writes with glee, “and in its transformation it may well find that it has helped to create a new world of light and hope.”

3) The Highway Act Of 1956

This project actually turned out to be a disaster in comparison to private highways of the time.  Economist Leigh Jenco notes that, “new, less-direct federal highways wound through those states and towns that could muster the most political clout, adding hours (or days) to cross-country driving time. It was political lobbying, and not the “failure” of a market, that led to uncoordinated and unnecessary highway building.” This is in contrast to the Lincoln Highway, a fully private highway that was responsible for cutting cross-country travel time by two-thirds and reducing travel costs to an affordable $5 a day.

4) The Civil Rights Act Of 1964

Passed by Lyndon B. Johnson, this bill supposedly helped minorities overcome racism in the private sector.  For some reason, I doubt a racist like Johnson would have signed off on a such a bill unless he had ulterior motives.  The real issue here is property rights.  From an economic standpoint, businesses that do not discriminate will be more profitable than those that do.  Over a long term horizon, racist businesses will be pushed out of the market on their own, without any laws or regulations being necessary to accomplish this.  With the passage of this bill, the federal government now had its proverbial camel’s nose under the tent in regards to its authority over the property of private business owners.

Further, the human leeches called lawyers were slathering at the mouth over the prospects of discrimination lawsuits that would stem from the bill.  The ACLU and NAACP lobbied heavily in favor of granting private persons the right to file civil suits for discrimination.  I would argue that the lobbying efforts of these groups was not motivated by their dislike of racism, as much as it was the prospects of making money off of litigation. Such lawsuits do not turn racist business owners into non-racists, but they can end up redistributing huge amounts of resources away from businesses that would otherwise put them to good use.

Bottom line, why would a minority want to work for, or shop at, a business that was run by a racist anyways?  Consider that after the passage of this law, minorities now had no way of knowing which businesses were run by racists and which were not.  How do you know to avoid a business if they are prohibited from engaging in overt racism? Laws are incapable of turning bigots into benevolent beings.

5) The Immigration Act Of 1965

This was a solution to a problem that government created in the first place.  Had the state not enacted racist quotas on immigration or put restrictions on where people can live, this bill wouldn’t have been necessary.  I don’t see why we should praise them for getting rid of the racial aspect of their freedom restricting immigration schemes.  Should we praise a murderer who stops murdering?  Last time I checked, we were still debating the so-called “problem” of illegal immigration, a problem that would not exist without the state.

6 & 7) The Clean Air Act Of 1970 and The Clean Water Act Of 1972

Economist Patrick Weinert notes that, ”air pollution was being reduced in the United States decades before any federal regulations were adopted. From 1950 until 1970, the amount of volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide in the nation’s air fell by more than 20 percent, even though total vehicle-miles traveled in the country rose by 120 percent, from 458 billion to 1.1 trillion. The level of sulfur dioxide in the air began falling as far back as 1920, and the total amount of airborne particulate matter has been reduced by 79 percent since 1940.”

There are two things that can bring about a reduction in pollution without any environmental regulations at all.  One is an increase in savings, which improves a society’s capital base, allowing for technological improvements in production which reduce waste and make production more efficient.  The other is stricter enforcement of property rights.  I would argue that these are the only two ways pollution can be reduced without causing more damage to the economy and environment than the pollution itself creates.

Consider that if a factory is belching smoke on to my land, and I can prove this is creating problems for me, I should be able to sue them in order to get them to stop.  Such lawsuits are not normally allowed to be brought today, but they were previously allowed in the past. Prior to regulations that raised the minimum height of smokestacks, it was fairly easy to tell where air pollution was coming from.

Simply upholding people’s property rights would end pollution more rapidly than any government mandated scheme, but protecting property rights is something the state puts at the bottom of its to-do list. Water pollution could be solved the same way, if the state allowed for private ownership of waterways. I recommend readers check out a few of the following works by various economists that point out the inherent problems with environmental regulation, and why property rights are better able to manage the environment than the state.

Environmentalism and Economic Freedom: The Case for Private Property Rights, by Walter Block

Environmentalism Without Government, by Tibor R. Machan

Environmentalism Refuted, by George Reisman

The Recycling Myth, by Per Bylund