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Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2001 / 21 Tishrei, 5762

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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War and government --
WAR is the great friend of the state. That is one of the lessons of 20th-century history. War increases the size and power of government; it justifies government limitations of people's liberty and exactions of people's property. World War I, World War II, in its own way the Cold War-all vastly strengthened government in the United States and many other countries.

So the question arises: Will the war that George W. Bush and the Congress have declared on terrorism with a global reach increase the size and power of government in the United States? Are Americans, in recent decades skeptical about the efficacy of government, going to back a larger and more powerful government again?

Evidence that the answer is yes comes in a September 25-27 poll taken by the Washington Post. Fully 64 percent of respondents said that they trusted the federal government to do what is right most of the time or virtually always. This is the highest percentage taking that view since 1966, when 65 percent said so. That number dropped below 50 percent in 1974 and ranged between 20 percent and 34 percent in the Clinton years.

But this is probably not a blanket endorsement of more government across the board. It is surely related to the fact that 90 percent gave positive job ratings to Bush and similarly high marks to other officials of both parties.

Modern times. More important, the character of the war we are fighting and the character of the country going into the war are very different from what they were in the great struggles of the 20th century. The America that went to war in 1941 was industrial America, in which decisions were increasingly made by big units-big government, big business, big labor. It was a nation in which factories were run by managers operating under the theories of Frederick W. Taylor, in which each worker was seen as an interchangeable cog performing a simple operation over and over again in the most efficient way. In the dozen years before 1941, this nation's economy was in depression and its industrial plant not fully utilized.

Government stepped in to mobilize the nation. Wages and prices were controlled; scarce resources were allocated; factories were converted to war production. Taxes were raised to a confiscatory 88 percent on income over $200,000. Government spending, four fifths of it for defense, rose to 45 percent of the gross national product. A nation that had employed 47 million people a year before Pearl Harbor drafted young men and produced a military force of 12 million men. American production was prodigious, far exceeding what almost anyone thought possible in 1941; the American military, largely by dint of mass forces and mechanization, rolled over our enemies. It was a triumph of industrial America, of a people used to working in large organizations.

This is a different war and a different America. In our postindustrial America, people increasingly work for small organizations, they switch jobs and learn new skills, they adapt to the cues of the economic marketplace, which has grown for 16 of the past 18 years. We are technologically creative and confident of our ability to master new challenges.

The war against terrorism is not going to require a vastly larger state, as World War II did. Defense currently amounts to 4 percent of the gross domestic product; even if that rises by 1 or 2 points, it will be lower than the 7 percent of the mid-1980s and the 11 percent of the early 1960s. Some commentators have called for a revival of the military draft, on the grounds that all young men should be subject to equal sacrifice. But military leaders don't want a draft: They want men and women with positive motivations toward military service, not unwilling draftees from the putrid corners of campuses where professors are saying that America is morally responsible for the September 11 attacks. And, unlike in World War II, the military does not need the entire 18-to-24 age cohort; it would have to induct some and not others, and those discriminations are sources of real trouble, as the Vietnam years showed.

This war seems likely to require the things postindustrial America is good at. It requires high-technology weapons and information technology. It requires relatively small, highly trained, readily adaptable military units. It requires an openness and ability to deal with people who are different from us. Victory in World War II built confidence in big government and the other big units of industrial America, confidence that lasted another two decades until big government performed poorly in Vietnam. Success in the war against terrorism should build confidence in our supple, creative, small-unit postindustrial America-not in a big government we don't need.

Michael Baone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2001, Michael Barone