The Rise of Statism

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Crisis
and Leviathan
• By Robert Higgs • Oxford University
Press, 1987 • 350 pages. This review was originally published
in Liberty, 1987

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. To Professor Higgs, being thorough and erudite does not
mean timorously qualifying every statement, or torpidly and "judiciously"
picking one’s way through the minefields of ideology. Higgs’s
depth and breadth of learning has only intensified his commitment
to truth, liberty, and the identification its enemies.

Robert Higgs,
a noted economic historian, set about to answer a longstanding
and vital question: why has the State grown so ominously in power
in the United States during the 20th century? Why did we begin
as a quasi-laissez-faire country in the 19th century and end up
in our current mess? What were the processes of change?

The orthodox
answer, the answer given by statist apologists, is all too simple:
the world grew more complex, the increasing need for statism was
perceived by intellectuals, statesmen, and farsighted businessmen;
hence government expanded in response to those needs. Of course,
no one who is not a naïve apologist for the status quo will
fall for such pap.

Robert Higgs
was a student of the Chicagoite school of "cliometrics"
fathered by Douglass North, of the University of Washington. The
Northian approach to economic history is marked by several features:

  1. a roughly
    free-market approach, but strongly tempered by the "Whig"
    notion that whatever existed in the past had to exist;
  2. a strict
    economic determinism that everyone is only out for his own economic
    self-interest; and

  3. the view
    that all of economic history can be encompassed by a few mathematical
    equations.

It should be
pointed out that c is totally fallacious on its own, but only gains
seeming plausibility if you hold b, and then add whopping assumptions
about measurement of determined behavior. It is patently impossible,
even for cliometricians, to embody ideology, people’s values and
ideas into mathematical equations.

We can also
see that a, the Whig determinism that no status quo can be changed,
combined with b, strict economic determinism, leads to total pessimism
about changing any situation, past or present, in behalf of liberty.
If ideas or principles are unimportant and can have no influence
on history, as the public-choice wing of Chicagoites has emphasized,
then there is no hope to overcome the more pointed and intense
economic interest of groups clamoring for special privileges from
the State.

The
special delight of Crisis and Leviathan is that Higgs has
worked himself loose from Northian cliometrics. Much of the beginning
of the book is a knowledgeable and trenchant assault on its assumptions
and procedures. The key to historical change, and specifically
to the growth of statism, North points out, was a change in ideology,
in the ruling set of ideas in society. The crucial watershed was
the adoption of statism by the American intellectuals during the
Progressive period. As a result, any economic or political crisis
could give a major thrust to statism that it could not do before.

One great
accomplishment of Professor Higgs is to vindicate the role of
ideas in history; more specifically, the role of ideology in bringing
about statism in the 20th century. He has rescued the discipline
of economic history from the Chicago variant of economic determinism.

But this
is scarcely all. For in virtually every free-market economist
of our time, there is one great big hole, one big gap in his critique
of statism: war. War is sacrosanct, considered necessary, inevitable,
and good; and so while free-market economists will devote a great
deal of energy to the evils of government intervention in oil,
or forestry, or the retail trade, there is little or nothing said
about the horrors and distortions imposed by the Pentagon and
the war-making Leviathan State.

In Crisis
and Leviathan, Higgs identifies war as the critical key to
the growth of statism, making his achievement all the more remarkable.
World Wars I and II, coming on top of the adoption of statist
ideology, were the critical thrusts for the triumph of statism,
in economic and social affairs. Higgs points out that World War
I, in contrast to previous American wars, was used to impose a
collectivism that became a cherished model for all statists as
a permanent feature of American life; and that World War II completed
the job.

Usually,
free-market economists, ever wary of making value judgments, restrict
their critique of conscription to a mere argument that it is an
inefficient way of mobilizing manpower: hence their call for a
volunteer army as a more efficient means of allocating labor and
imposing social costs. Robert Higgs, in contrast, argues that
the draft is central to the development of statism in the 20th
century. In an important contribution, Higgs points out that once
conscription was adopted, the statists were able to use the draft
as a powerful weapon for the control of the economy and society.
Essentially, they argued that "if our boys are drafted, then
surely property must be controlled and conscripted as well."

Already,
alert conservatives have denounced Crisis and Leviathan
for its pinpointing of war and militarism as a key to statism.
The reviewer for the American Spectator denounced Higgs
for his "libertarian" leanings. When conservatives are
faced with a choice between war and freedom, we all know which
they invariably choose.

Not the least
of the joys of Crisis and Leviathan is the love of liberty
and the hatred of its enemies that shines through the scholarly
apparatus of the book. In Yeats’s famous phrase,

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