January 24, 2010

A YEAR AGO IT WAS ALL “HOPE AND CHANGE,” but now it’s Leviathan stirs again.

Today big government is back with a vengeance: not just as a brute fact, but as a vigorous ideology. Britain’s public spending is set to exceed 50% of GDP (see chart 1). America’s financial capital has shifted from New York to Washington, DC, and the government has been trying to extend its control over the health-care industry. Huge state-run companies such as Gazprom and PetroChina are on the march. Nicolas Sarkozy, having run for office as a French Margaret Thatcher, now argues that the main feature of the credit crisis is “the return of the state, the end of the ideology of public powerlessness”.

“The return of the state” is stirring up fiery opposition as well as praise. In America the Republican Party’s anti-government base is more agitated than it has been at any time since the days of the Gingrich revolution in 1994. “Tea-party” protesters have been marching across the country with an amusing assortment of banners and buttons: “Born free, taxed to death” and “God only requires 10%”. On January 19th Scott Brown, a Republican, captured the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by the late Ted Kennedy, America’s most prominent supporter of big-government liberalism. . . .

“The question that we ask today”, said Barack Obama in his inaugural address, “is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” This is clearly naive: with deficits soaring, nobody can afford to ignore the size of government. Mr Obama’s appeal for pragmatism has some value: conservative attempts to roll back government regulations have led to disaster in the finance industry. But left-wing attempts to defend entitlements and public-sector privileges willy-nilly will condemn the state to collapse under its own weight.

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