Can big government be rolled back?

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It is a rare proposition on which liberals and conservatives agree: American history over the last hundred years has been a story of the growth of the size and powers of government. This growth has not been steady. Conservatives, with some bitterness, have embraced a theory of ratchets: in every generation, liberals succeed in ratcheting up the size of government and conservatives fail to significantly reduce it.

Liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., argued for a similar theory of cycles: we have periods when liberals succeed in expanding government and then periods when conservatives resist further expansion but do not roll back previous growth.  In Schlesinger’s view, each cycle of government growth begins with a major electoral victory for the Democratic party: Woodrow Wilson’s election in the three-way contest in 1912, the five consecutive victories of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman from 1932 to 1948, the landslide for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the victories of Bill Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008.  

The elections cited by Schlesinger can be taken as endorsements by voters of government expansion, though not unambiguously; note that Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 called for reducing federal budget deficits, and Bill Clinton in 1992 called for ending “welfare as we know it.” But other elections can be taken as repudiations of big-government policies. They include Warren G. Harding’s record-breaking winning percentage in 1920, the triumph of anti–New Deal Democrats and Republicans in 1938, the Republican congressional majorities elected in 1946, the significant Republican victories in 1966 and 1968, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, and the Republican congressional victories in 1994.

What follows here is an examination of the consequences of those elections. How successful or unsuccessful were the efforts to reduce the size and scope of government? What implications do these episodes have for those who seek to reverse the recent growth in government spending as a percentage of the economy, which rose from the 20–21 percent level in the years from the 1960s to 2007 to 24–25 percent today?

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