The Ratchet Effect is destroying the vision of limited government in America. Our Federal Government is now the biggest central government in the history of the world.
Let that sink in. America is nominally the bastion of limited government and individual sovereignty, and yet our government is bigger than that of China’s, a communist country with four times as many people. Our government is bigger than that of former Nazi Germany. Our government is bigger than that of the totalitarian empire of the former Soviet Union. It’s bigger than every other government on Earth right now.
The Federal Government just keeps getting bigger and bigger, year after year. Our Constitution was designed to prevent that from happening. And yet it has happened, and there is no end in sight. Why?
The answer is the Ratchet Effect.
In mechanics, a ratchet is a device that allows movement in one direction, but not the opposite direction. In politics, the Ratchet Effect is a description of irreversible government momentum. Governments almost always grow bigger, at least until something catastrophic happens to them.
In America, there are two elements of the Ratchet Effect that have led us to the pinnacle of Big Government.
The first element is the partisan nature of American politics. We have two competing major political parties. One likes to grow the government, the other likes to maintain the status quo. The second element is the very nature of government. Let’s examine that element first.
Here are some reasons why all governments have an inherent bias toward growing bigger:
- Politicians make laws. That’s the nature of their job. They build their resumes by sponsoring bills and getting them passed. There is little incentive to eliminate old laws.
- Politicians want to get reelected. That’s the nature of politics. To get re-elected, they need to influence voters. They all understand that the best way to influence voters is to bribe them with additional government benefits. They rarely campaign on the platform of eliminating benefits.
- New laws lead to even more laws. That’s the nature of cause and effect. Every law that gets passed has unintended consequences and collateral effects. That’s because every new law is a disturbance in the present course of human interaction. The unintended consequences and the moral hazards from those disturbances are impossible for fallible politicians to fully understand and predict ahead of time. When the inevitable disturbances ripple through society, the politicians must scramble to pass even more laws to fix the problems they created with their earlier laws. One law leads to five. Five laws lead to twenty-five. And so on. It’s akin to an uncontrolled thermonuclear reaction.
- Failure leads to more laws. The failure of a government law or program never leads to a condemnation of the law or the program, but rather to an argument for enacting an even more powerful law or a more expensive program that will hopefully lead to “success”. A corollary of this phenomenon is that no government program is ever designed for “success”.
- Governments rarely zero-base their new budgets. The prior year’s budget is usually considered a baseline upon which to add new expenditures. Old expenditures and programs that may now be unnecessary are rarely sunset. As Reagan pointed out, they are the nearest things to eternal life that we have on Earth.
- Taxation policy is destiny. When the tax model becomes skewed to the point where less than half of the population pays income tax to support the government, all future political decisions will have a democratic bias toward more government spending. People have unlimited desires, especially when other people are funding them.
- Unlimited money supply equals unlimited government. When a government controls society’s money supply through its central bank, it has a stranglehold on the economic lifeblood of civilization. Governments, as a matter of self-interest, will always abuse this to expand their size and influence, often through inflation caused by printing of money.
- Voters develop a sense of entitlement. Once a new benefit is enacted by government, it becomes a psychological baseline for all future political considerations. Woe to any politician who wants to take the new entitlement away.
- Government becomes a lifestyle. The government employees and the employees of various non-profit and for-profit organizations that thrive on bigger government become a class unto themselves within society. Their advocacy is always for more government spending because their entire livelihoods depend on it.
- Government becomes a crutch. People who have experienced hardships that are remedied by government support programs develop a bias to continue to lean on the support programs. This dependence often becomes chronic and multi-generational. What politician wants to advocate kicking away their crutch?
- Governments take advantage of crises. Major crises can create enough instability and fan enough panic to fuel a broad cry for more government control and spending. The biggest ratchetings of Federal Government power were in response to crises, such as economic depressions, a civil war, external wars, a pandemic, and now climate change. There will always be crises, and governments will always take advantage of them to grow.
- Government becomes a collusion. This is the final stage of the Ratchet Effect. Once the above effects take hold in a society, a permanent alignment occurs between the government, the elitist organizations that thrive on the government, and the citizens who have become addicted to its largesse. This collusion becomes a powerful political, social, and media force that tips the scale of future political decisions, always with a bias toward more government. This symphonic collusion leads to Big Government control over the key chokepoints of society, including the money supply, the financial system, the surveillance and censorship mechanisms, the military, the police, the education establishment, the regulatory machinery, and the power to tax. This results in a permanent hegemony of Big Government that always benefits the powerful and grinds the weak into dust.
The second element of the Ratchet Effect in America is the partisan nature of our politics. There are two major political parties in our country that ebb and flow in power. As one would expect, the two parties align themselves along a political spectrum that acts as a lever in our Ratchet analogy. On the Right end of the spectrum is a party advocating less government and more individual responsibility. On the Left end of the spectrum is a party advocating more government and less individual responsibility.
Since all governments have an inherent bias to grow bigger, the party on the Right has a much tougher challenge. They must fight against all the inertial social and political forces described above. These scalar forces are massively powerful. They have caused all governments throughout history to grow bigger until they run headlong into the cataclysms of totalitarianism, social collapse, or revolution. The party on the Left has an easy job. They simply take advantage of the inherent momentum of government to implement their political agenda. The wind of Big Government is always at their backs.
How has this played out in American politics? When the Left is in power, they aggressively push the agenda of Big Government. In other words, they engage the political ratchet in the only direction it can go. When the Right is in power, they stop the ratchet from turning to the left, but never turn it back in the other direction, because it can’t go in the other direction. They talk a lot about Small Government but there are too many systemic headwinds for them to scale back the size of the Permanent Government. They ritualistically invoke the ghosts of the Constitution, but the Constitution has been steamrolled by the Ratchet Effect and is largely an artifact of history at this point. The best that the Right can hope for when it is in power is to tread water and keep the ratchet idle for a while.
Both sides know this. But they play the charade out anyway, and we go along with it. Each side has an intoxicating narrative that enthralls their supporters and frightens their opponents, but it is merely Kabuki Theater. The Left will tell us they are centrists who respect the Constitution, but they will violate its very essence by cranking the Ratchet when they have power. The Right will tell us they are centrists who respect the Constitution, but when they have power, they will look the other way rather than try to undo the ratcheting the Left has done. As this ratcheting continuously plays out, the center of American politics keeps moving leftward, and the Federal Government keeps getting bigger. And the elitist establishment in Washington is amused by our naivete. They have conned us into focusing on which party should rule rather than on limiting the power of any party that does rule.
Thus, the last 150 years in America have witnessed a gradual leftward political shift, pushed along by Progressive and Neo-Marxist philosophies that were imported by fellow travelers from Europe. The steady ratcheting of our polity by these stealthy Leftist influences has accomplished what violent upheavals never could have. We have unwittingly chained ourselves to a collectivist Leviathan, forging each link piecemeal over a long stretch, but always with the same end game in store.
The very foundations of our society are being challenged by this leftward movement. Do individuals own themselves or not? Are individuals responsible for themselves or not? Is the role of government to protect us from coercion or to social engineer us? Should people be free to earn a living or be forced to transfer their earnings to others?
We’ve arrived at a moment in time in our post-Constitutional society where our Federal Government has become so pervasive and powerful that our society is at war with itself trying to decide which direction our Leviathan of a government will go or which factions it will favor.
What can be done at this point to undo the damage of the Ratchet Effect? Term limits for all politicians? Balanced budget requirements? Constraints on the power of Congress? Invoke the 9th and 10th Amendments to restrain the Federal Government as a whole? Secession by disgruntled states?
Two things are certain. First, the sole remedy for abuse of political power is to limit it. Second, things that can’t go on forever won’t go on forever. Whenever governments grow too powerful, something catastrophic always happens. That story remains to be written for America. But it will be written.
As Jefferson reminded us in the Declaration of American Independence, whenever any form of government becomes destructive, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to establish new government that is more likely to secure their safety and happiness.