What do we mean when we talk about “big government”? Conservatives have railed against this enemy for generations, but it is striking how rarely we try to define the term.
The conservative movement was born in opposition to the New Deal and has thus historically oriented itself against the programs that emerged from that era. Social Security, our New Deal-era retirement system, is America’s biggest federal outlay by far. This makes it tempting to conflate “big government” with the government’s total fiscal footprint. Yet at least since Trump, conservatives have awoken to the folly of libertarian-inflected cuts to popular entitlement programs. While Medicare and Social Security have their problems, they are viewed by the public as earned benefits, and don’t represent what most conservatives intuitively mean by “big government” anyway.
Alternatively, bigness could refer to the sheer scope of the federal government’s direct and indirect involvement in our daily lives. This gets closer to the mark. Most laws have no direct budgetary impact, and yet contribute to the growing thicket of bureaucratic regulation that interferes with our ability to build the lives we desire for ourselves and our families. Worst of all are those policies that aim at reshaping society according to some contested set of values.
Modern conservatives are thus better served by delineating the New Deal from what came after: the Great Society. Indeed, while President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives are typically seen as an extension of New Deal liberalism, they originated in an entirely distinct political economy. The political scientist Matt Grossman goes so far as to dub the era between 1961 and 1976 “the Long Great Society,” spanning four presidents, with LBJ merely being the most prominent.
The Long Great Society witnessed the enactment of hundreds of new policies that dramatically expanded the scope and responsibility of the federal government into every aspect of American life. Some of the reforms, like the enactment of Medicare, built directly off the Social Security Act and reflected the New Deal ethos of universal, contributory social insurance. The broader potpourri of new federal programs, however, worked quite differently. From education and the environment to the War on Poverty and urban renewal, dozens of ad hoc programs emerged that construed America’s social ills as scientific problems solvable by an enlightened technocratic elite. This was no accident.
While LBJ benefited from large congressional majorities, Grossman argues that the legislative productivity of the Great Society cannot be explained by political fundamentals alone. Rather, the success and durability of the Long Great Society is owed to the powerful governing network that took shape in the decades after World War II, and which persists to this day. With the support of private philanthropy, legal organizations, leftist academics, community action groups, and professional policy analysts, the ascendent governing network supplied lawmakers with the ideas, expertise, and coalition mobilization needed to both enact liberal social policies and staff their operations.
The policies in question were thus inevitably symbiotic with the elite class whose interests they represented. Consider the rise of rights-based liberalism and the legal aid movement. In the 1950s, the Ford Foundation began providing substantial patronage to the legal profession through grants to legal reform organizations, law schools, and legal fellowships. This buoyed the emerging generation of lawyers who had attained status by helping businesses navigate the post-New Deal legal order. Subsequently, as part of the War on Poverty, the federal government committed to providing low-income defendants with free legal aid through the Office of Economic Opportunity’s Legal Services Program. “In the process,” notes the political scientist Steven Teles, “the concept of legal aid changed from representing individual indigents to encouraging broad-based political and social change.” …