All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1987

Book Review: Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government by Robert Higgs

Oxford University Press. 200 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016 • 1987 • 416 pages • $24.95 cloth

This is a first-class volume, which in substance exceeds its title. It will prove invaluable not only to people with expertise, or wishing to acquire expertise, in American history, but to men and women anxious to understand the reversion in our age to the large, intrusive governments against which classical liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries fought with considerable success.

This is not to say that the volume is misperceived if its subtitle—Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government—is taken at face value. In such chapters as The Progressive Era: A Bridge to Modern Times, The Political Economy of War: 1916-1918, and The Great Depression: “An Emergency More Serious Than War,” the author provides a detailed historical analysis of significant turning points in the history of the United States.

Yet, in a very real sense, these chapters serve as case studies of a more general thesis—that government typically grows during a “crisis,” real or imagined. In time of crisis, those who normally would oppose an extension of governmental power can be panicked into approving or even demanding such an extension. Rather than endure actual or anticipated social dislocations, or wait for the crisis to be dealt with by market processes, men and women facing a crisis insist that government “do something.”

Professor Higgs tightly points out that “no single standard explanation can account for the timing of the extension of governmental authority over economic decision-making” and that attempts to provide what one might call a “monistic” explanation achieve simplicity at the expense of accuracy. Yet one constant can be observed—that crises provide the opportunity to extend government powers, and that rarely is the opportunity passed by.

Higgs concludes his study in a minor key. He holds that crises occasioned by many causes—“foreign wars, economic collapse, or rampant terrorism”—inevitably will characterize the future. “When they . . . [occur] governments almost certainly will gain new powers over economic and social affairs. . . . For those who cherish individual liberty and a free society, the prospect is deeply disheartening.”

Yet that statement comes from the volume’s penultimate paragraph. And although the minor key continues in the final paragraph, what is said there offers ground for hope. The author asserts that, while he hopes he is wrong, he is of the opinion that the process leading to an ever more intrusive government cannot be halted. He notes, however, that “Americans have been brought to their present inauspicious circumstances by, above all else, changes in the prevailing ideology. If ideologies are not mere superstructure, if ideas can gain sway through rational consideration in the light of historical evidence and moral persuasion, then there remains a hope, however slight, that the American people may rediscover the worth of individual rights, limited government, and a free society under a true rule of law.”

This reviewer believes that ideas can most certainly “gain sway” through the educational work of organizations committed to liberty. Robert Higgs’ qualified pessimism certainly has grounds. But so did the even greater pessimism voiced by Adam Smith. Yet the ideas Adam Smith and other classical liberals formulated and defended managed to inspire sufficient men and women to overthrow the nightmare that was mercantilism. Hence, while reading this thoughtful volume is not unlike witnessing a Greek tragedy, wincing as one observes a heroic character slowly but inexorably moving his or her way toward inevitable destruction, one can close the book not with a sigh of despair but with an intensified desire to do all one can to further the ideas and the ideals upon which liberty ultimately depends.
(The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams of North Melbourne, Australia, has been FEE’s summer scholar in residence for the past three summers.)

  • The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE from April to October of this year.