Schlesinger May Have Been a Good Historian, But...

George Leef

  • Article
  • March 15, 2011

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal included a letter from a writer who thought that he could counter a recent op-ed by Charles Koch, arguing that the federal government does too much, costs too much, and menaces our future prosperity, with a 1995 comment by the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Schlesinger, venting after the Democrats lost control of Congress, saw big government as a line of defense for the common people against rapacious "corporate interests." He did not see that those corporate interests only have power due to their alliances with politicians. Here is the letter I just sent to the WSJ in response:

Writer George Kovac evidently believes that the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. penned a brilliant “critique” of the government-downsizing movement (letters, March 14). Writing after the Democrats lost control of Congress in the 1994 elections, Schlesinger opined that it was an “assault on the national government” that would merely transfer power to “the great corporate interests.”

It is inane to offer Schlesinger’s 1995 comment as a rejoinder to the arguments made by Charles Koch in his March 1 op-ed.

First, the serious case for downsizing the federal government is no more an “attack” on the government than were liberal arguments against governmental policies made by people like Schlesinger back in the 50s and 60s when they argued that the government should stop waging unnecessary wars, stop enforcing racial segregation, stop trying to stifle dissent and so on. To maintain as Mr. Koch does, that the federal government is doing things it should not do and thereby imposing undue burdens on our prosperity while undermining our freedom, is a rational criticism. Brushing it off as “an attack on the government” is exactly the kind of rhetoric that liberals like Schlesinger used to decry when conservatives used it.

Second, Schlesinger poses a false dilemma in suggesting that we must choose between big government domination and domination by “great corporate interests.” Corporations cannot compel people to buy their products, to subsidize their losses, to support whatever agendas they may have. Politicians, on the other hand, can and do subject us to coercion with innumerable taxes, mandates and prohibitions. Often, they enter into alliances with businesses, unions, and other interests to give those interests favors and privileges they would not otherwise have. It is exactly that sort of crony capitalism that is the main target of Koch and others who wish to restore the government to its proper constitutional limits.

Schlesinger may have been a good historian, but his understanding of the effects of expansive government was badly flawed.

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