Historical Growth of Federal Power: An Overview

How Did This Happen?

America was conceived as an ideal.  It was to be a place where sovereign individuals, living in sovereign states, could freely make nearly all the decisions that affected their lives, including where to work, where to live, who to associate with, what church to go to, what to read, who to listen to, what to say, and how to spend or invest the fruit of their creative efforts.  To facilitate this, our federal government was to have very limited power, and its primary mission was to honor a constitution crafted to protect life, liberty, and property.  The 9th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution made this very clear.

Flash forward to today.  We live in a post-Constitutional society.  The Federal Government has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of size, spending, power, and authority.  We find our lives increasingly constrained by high taxes, bureaucratic mandates, and regulatory burdens.  Distant leaders in Washington make decisions without our consent.  Their decisions are often beneficial to the elitist power brokers in our society and are usually detrimental to the people who invest their blood, sweat, and tears in their families and communities.  Individuals are feeling more and more powerless and frustrated.

How did this happen?  How did we transition from a nation of free, brave, self-reliant, and independent people to a nation of subservient, dependent, compliant, and frightened rule-followers?

There have always been people in our society who lusted after power.  Such is true in all of history.  In America, their lust for power was long frustrated by our Constitutional safeguards.  But certain opportunities arose to throw off those safeguards.  Such opportunities were almost always associated with crises.  Those who lusted for power leveraged the crises by playing on the fears of ordinary people and offering them the illusion of safety and security if only they sacrificed their independence and freedom to the Federal Government.  Step by step we transitioned from a nation of limited government and sovereign individuals to a nation of expansive government and submissive individuals.

What were those crises?  Were they manufactured or real?  What changes did those crises trigger in our society that led to our current situation?  Here is a brief chronological summary.

The political culture of America changed dramatically during the Civil War (1861-1865) and its aftermath.  Wars are the most profound crises of all.  They almost always result in increased government spending, suspension of civil liberties, and authoritarian mandates that affect all aspects of life.  Our civil war was no different.  The federal government assumed new powers and authority during the conflict.  Some of that power and authority was never relinquished.  This was particularly true because of the nature of the war.  It was started because certain states had exercised their sovereignty by seceding, largely over the issue of slavery.  This was intolerable to the central government.  The war and the aftermath of reunification (Reconstruction) was a period when the Federal Government flexed its muscle and encroached upon States Rights.  It never returned to its limited antebellum role.

Once the Federal Government began flexing it muscle, it needed funding, as all big governments do.  For a period, it was frustrated by Constitutional safeguards.  But the looming threat of World War I (1914-1918) was used as justification for passing the Federal Reserve Act (1913) and ratifying the 16th Amendment to the Constitution (1913).  The Federal Reserve Act created a national banking system that made it easy for the Federal Government to borrow and print money.  The 16th Amendment created the federal income tax, which was an umbilical cord from American wallets to the bureaucrats in power in Washington.  Those who lusted for greater federal power now had the means to acquire the necessary funds, some of which would eventually be used to bribe Americans to surrender their sovereignty in return for security.

The next crisis in the American saga was the Great Depression.  The crisis was triggered in large part by catastrophic mismanagement of the international financial systems by government-controlled central banks around the world.  The response to the crisis by the U.S. Federal Government was FDR’s New Deal.  This was a series of taxes, regulations, programs, agencies, and entitlements intended to resurrect the economy, help ordinary people, and prevent future catastrophe.   It was a major step in our cultural evolution toward trading freedom for security.  Ironically, the security was to be provided by the same Federal Government that had helped cause the financial crisis in the first place.

The War on Poverty was the next great crisis-driven change in our culture.  Civil unrest during the 1960’s, fanned by agitators using racial and economic injustice as wedges to lobby for bigger government, led to the creation of ever-expanding programs, entitlements, and regulations managed by the Federal Government.   This led to higher taxes, greater dependence on federal assistance, and multi-generational reliance on government rather than on the private sector for the necessities of life.  It represented a tidal shift in American culture from productive independence to victimized dependence.

The War on Terror that was triggered on 9/11/2001 by radical Islamists was the next crisis.  The crisis led to military adventures abroad, domestic surveillance internally, and more constraints on our freedom.  The ensuing Patriot Act, which included the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, coupled with the rise of complicit data-mining internet and social media companies, seeded an intrusive Surveillance State that eventually turned the focus of its espionage and counter-terrorism efforts against internal rather than external foes.  These “foes” eventually came to include such enemies as angry mothers protesting their lack of influence over school boards responsible for teaching their children.

The Covid-19 pandemic that began in 2020 ratcheted the power of centralized government up another few notches.  Most of our civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights were suspended during the pandemic, unilaterally and without legislative or citizen consent.  People were ordered not to work, their businesses were ordered to close, people were barred from assembling or attending church services, public dissent was censored and even punished, children were locked out from their schools, new entitlements and programs were created and funded out of thin air, responsibility for our medical care was transitioned from our personal physicians to distant bureaucracies like the National Institute of Health and the World Health Organization, and getting a vaccine and wearing masks were made mandatory conditions of participating in ordinary society.  The Covid-19 crisis was used by the Federal Government as an opportunity to fully cross the threshold from being constrained by the Constitution to assuming any power whatsoever that the elites desired.

The Climate Change crisis is the current lever being used to expand Federal Government power.  It is likely to become the most powerful lever of them all, for several reasons.  First, the Covid-19 crisis demonstrated to those who lust for power that there is a lack of general resistance by the current populace to the rise of authoritarian government.  This Covid-19 “lesson learned” will embolden all future crisis-driven authoritarian power grabs.  Second, the fear of Climate Change gives rise to essentially a blank check for government intrusions into all aspects of life.  What aspect of life is not affected by Climate Change?  We must all be willing to sacrifice everything to save the planet!  The beauty of this blank check, at least in the eyes of those who lust for power, is that it is a perpetual claim on the wallets and actions of everyone, because Climate Change will never end, and no one will ever be held accountable for failure to manage the crisis.  Third, the Climate Change crisis will not only drive a stake into the heart of individual sovereignty, and it will not only drive a stake into the heart of States Rights, but it will also chain American citizens to the whims and wishes of extranational organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organization, and the World Economic Forum.  After all, Climate Change is everyone’s problem!

What a long, strange trip it has been from 1776 to 2022.  The authors of the two greatest political documents in the history of the world, the Declaration of American Independence and the U.S. Constitution, would not recognize this country today if they were able to set eyes upon it.  And if the current trajectory of governmental power continues, this country will cease to exist in its current political form.   Our former Constitutional Republic will become a fully centralized totalitarian behemoth that we hide from, run from, or figure out how to split up.

Can you hear that mournful dirge coming from an unseen bugler just beyond the horizon, growing ever louder?  The bugler is playing the opening measures of Taps for the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.  The only antidote to the bugler’s tune is a return to strict interpretations of the 9th and 10th Amendments.