Government begins with disaster — in fact, in response to floods. The
earliest civilizations were riverbank cultures along the Nile, the Tigris, the
Euphrates. And the first truly large-scale collective human endeavor was to build
levees to prevent those rivers from overflowing their banks and destroying humankind’s
Which means that if the kinds of economic libertarians who have dominated public policy in the United States for the past quarter-century had been around in ancient Egypt and ancient Iraq, we’d still be hunter-gatherers. Conversation would not stray far from “Pass that acorn.”
Governments arise in the first instance to fend off catastrophe — either before or after the fact — which by definition is something that people cannot do by themselves, or in small groups, or as points of light, or even as armies of compassion. A genuine catastrophe cannot be dealt with by anything less than an entity capable of wielding authority and recognized as such. In a word, by a government.
In the millennia that have slipped by since the rise of ancient Egypt, the functions of government, of course, have gone well beyond erecting levees — though it’s beyond ridiculous to realize that in the year 2005, we still haven’t got that one down. Even so, it’s sometimes taken a physical catastrophe to prompt an expansion of modern government’s social and economic powers. For modern America, the crucial catastrophe may have been the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that killed 246 largely young, largely immigrant seamstresses in lower Manhattan in 1911. In a scene America was not to witness again until the attacks of 9/11, dozens of workers leaped to their deaths rather than die by the fire and smoke that was consuming their workspace — in this case, a garment sweatshop where the doors were locked so that the women could not take bathroom breaks.
In a sense, the origins of the New Deal go back to the Triangle catastrophe. The tragedy riveted and outraged New York, and compelled Charley Murphy, the leader of Tammany Hall (the Manhattan Democratic Party organization) and the dominant political figure in the state, to reverse his previous opposition to social legislation. He appointed two young state legislators — Assemblyman Al Smith and state Sen. Robert Wagner — to investigate the tragedy. And in a few years, New York had enacted pioneering legislation limiting the employment of children, establishing maximum hours and overtime pay, and requiring some rudimentary forms of workplace safety. As New York’s governor in the ’20s, Smith expanded this legislation. And in 1935, Robert Wagner (by then the leading liberal in the U.S. Senate) and Frances Perkins (who in 1911 was a young social worker lobbying Charley Murphy and by 1935 was Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor) joined up at Roosevelt’s request to write the Social Security Act.
For, by 1935, even individualistic America recognized the necessity for expanding government into realms where it had never gone before. As usual, it took a catastrophe to prompt that collective realization — a depression on a scale no one previously could have imagined, in which one quarter of the nation’s workers lost their jobs, in which at least another quarter saw their wages badly slashed, in which millions of middle-class families had their savings wiped out, and in which, on the eve of Roosevelt’s first inaugural, every last bank in the United States had shuttered its doors rather than have its depositors withdraw all their savings.
The magnitude of Roosevelt’s response was without precedent. By the end of his first term, fully five million Americans were working directly for the federal government — cleaning parks, building post offices, erecting libraries and dams. (The entire pre-crash, 1929 workforce had totaled 40 million — almost none of them working for the feds.) Conservatives complained that Roosevelt had sapped individual initiative, but a clear majority of Americans believed working for the feds was preferable to joblessness, homelessness and occasional starvation.
Today, America exhibits an oddly split sensibility when it comes to big government
and its role in American history. The reason we extol the Greatest Generation
as the Greatest Generation is that it fought — and won — the Depression and World
War II, then built the miracle that was postwar America, home to the first majority
middle-class in human history. But what differentiates the Greatest Generation
from all other generations in American history is precisely that it was the big-government
generation, that it built and benefited from the New Deal and such postwar monuments
as the GI Bill, the interstate highway system, the University of California…
the list is endless.
But at the same time we bathe the big-government generation in nostalgia, we’ve been embarked for the past quarter-century on an anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-government, anti-collective endeavor crusade which holds that social good is enhanced — if we give a damn about social good at all — only by the endeavors of individuals. From Howard Jarvis to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, the word has been that all improvement derives from private wealth formation, and any governmental endeavor other than tax cuts for the rich thus impedes social progress.
As the destruction of New Orleans has made unmistakably clear, this libertarian doctrine is ludicrous, dangerous and at times all but suicidal. None of the billionaires who made out like bandits in Bush’s multi-trillion-dollar tax cuts bethought themselves to build levees around Lake Pontchartrain, or provide health coverage to the 45 million uninsured Americans, or come up with two more divisions in Iraq. Indeed, in New Orleans’ wake, divisions have grown much more acute between such “national greatness” conservatives as William Kristol and David Brooks, who’d like more troops in Iraq and better infrastructure at home, and the Republicans’ dominant anti-tax wing, for which no consideration trumps low taxes for the rich.
But catastrophe has worked its awful magic. Right now, Americans see the need for government again. We may almost be as enlightened as those farmers who worked the Nile six millennia ago.