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25 Years of Political Change

Seattle Slew, the horse that won the Triple Crown in 1977, has died. So have the political ideas that were as dominant as he was 25 years ago.

Caught up in today's political battles, we forget how much the world has changed since then. Jimmy Carter was president. Tip O'Neill, whose political life began during F.D.R.'s New Deal, was speaker of the House. Despite Nixon's usurpation, everyone knew that Democratic control of the American government was permanent — as was communist domination of half the world.

Philosopher-statesman Pat Moynihan wrote at the time, "Liberal democracy on the American model increasingly tends to the condition of monarchy in the 19th century; a holdover form of government, one which persists in isolated or particular places here and there, and may even serve well enough for special circumstance, but which has simply no relevance to the future. It is where the world was, not where it is going. Increasingly democracy is seen as an arrangement peculiar to a handful of North Atlantic countries."

But under the surface, things were changing. Some of the very weaknesses that led Henry Kissinger and Moynihan to their pessimism — such as the federal government's disastrous triple play of Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation — had eroded the confidence in government built up by the New Deal, World War II and the prosperous 1950s.

The ideas that F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and others had been propounding for a generation were taking root with more people. Politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who had read some of those dissident authors, were planning their challenges to the failing welfare-state consensus.

Even less obviously, the Soviet leaders had lost confidence in the Marxist ideology that justified their rule, a fact that would have profound consequences in the coming decade. In China, Mao had just died, and his old comrade Deng Xiao-ping was maneuvering for power. His victory would have an impact that no one could foresee in 1977.

Around the world, the past 25 years have seen the fall of the Soviet empire, apartheid and military dictatorships across Latin America, along with the transformation of China into a much freer, though still authoritarian, country.

There is no longer any serious argument in favor of socialism, protectionism or capital controls. From Great Britain and Sweden to Estonia and Hungary, from Mauritius and New Zealand to Mexico and Uruguay, people decided they wanted to be part of the global prosperity.

Intellectuals and activists may have railed against globalization, but people opted for it almost every chance they got.

Often it's the opponents of political and economic liberty who make the most noise. The street protests and violence of the anti-globalization activists from Seattle to Genoa may give the impression of a mass uprising against liberal capitalism, but that assumption would be an error. The anti-globalizers are violent because they're frustrated, and they're frustrated because they're losing. Everywhere that governments will allow it, people are choosing open markets and open societies: free information flows, commerce, trade, investment, and responsibility for their own lives.

Of course, the political class will not give up without a fight. Since Sept. 11, pols and pundits — from Sen. Chuck Schumer on the nanny-state left to Francis Fukuyama on the anti-science right — have declared that libertarianism is dead and the era of big government is back.

It's an odd claim. The Sept. 11 attacks, after all, reflect a massive failure of the federal government. With $1.9 trillion a year and 1.8 million employees, the government failed to anticipate or prevent a terrorist attack on New York and Washington. It failed in its first duty. Why would we expand the powers of government just when government has demonstrated its inability to do its basic job?

In fact, the voters seem to understand that better than the politicians and journalists. An ABC News poll showed that 68 percent of respondents trust the government to do what's right "when it comes to handling national security and the war on terrorism."

But only 38 percent trusted the government on "handling social issues like the economy, health care, Social Security, and education."

Another ABC poll showed that 54 percent prefer "smaller government with fewer services" while only 41 percent prefer "larger government with many services." No doubt the gap would be larger if the pollsters mentioned the taxes required to support larger government.

In March, McKenna Research asked Americans what lessons government should learn from Sept. 11. While 76 percent agreed "the federal government needs to pay more attention to national security and domestic safety," only 17 percent felt a renewed sense that "government should be larger and provide more services."

It isn't the era of big government that's back, at least not among the people. It's just the irrepressible desire of the political class to extend the size, scope and power of the federal government.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and editor of "Toward Liberty," a collection of essays published as part of the Institute's 25th anniversary celebration.