Who Killed Big Government?

A conversation about the secret history of American liberalism

Paul Sabin
James Surowiecki
Portrait of Paul Sabin.
Graphic by Laura Padilla Castellanos; photo of Paul Sabin by Dan Renzetti.

In his new book, Public Citizens, the Yale historian Paul Sabin makes a powerful case that in the 1960s and 1970s the most potent attacks on the postwar liberal order came not from the right, but from the left. American liberalism had been animated since the New Deal by a faith in the power of big government to accomplish big things: crisscross the country with interstate highways, remake entire cities, build giant hydroelectric dams, dot the landscape with nuclear power plants. Liberals believed that government, working in conjunction with business and labor, could use smart, top-down policy to fuel economic growth and technological development. And as part of this process, the administrative state—that alphabet soup of departments and agencies like the FDA, HEW, HUD, and so on—came to play a bigger role in governing and regulating myriad aspects of American life.

The death knell for that postwar dream was sounded, of course, by Ronald Reagan, who famously said in his 1981 inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” In the decades that followed Reagan’s election, the size of the government may not have shrunk. But Americans’ sense of what government could, and should, accomplish did.

Unsurprisingly, then, we tend to associate the critique of big government almost exclusively with Republicans. But, as Sabin shows, the left played a key role in its demise. In the 1960s, Rachel Carson documented the ecological destruction wrought by the indiscriminate, and government-approved, use of insecticides. Jane Jacobs showed how technocratic urban planners were destroying vibrant urban neighborhoods in the pursuit of some theoretical vision of the ideal city. And Ralph Nader documented the auto industry’s indifference to driver safety, as well as regulators’ complicity with that indifference.

In the years that followed, what came to be known as the public-interest movement—spearheaded by Nader—attacked what they saw as a too-cozy relationship among business, labor, and government, which they argued had sacrificed the health of the environment, consumer safety, and citizens’ rights in pursuit of economic growth. They argued that government agencies were often more interested in protecting private interests than regulating them. And they became adept at using the legal system to expand environmental and consumer protections and block the building of highways, dams, and pipelines.

The accomplishments of this movement are undeniable. Even beyond their success in the legal sphere, public-interest advocates played key roles in the passage of the signature environmental and worker-safety laws of the early 1970s, including strengthening the Clean Air Act and passing the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. But as Sabin shows, their deep skepticism of, and attacks on, the compromises inherent in policymaking helped undermine support for government action. Though they were keenly aware of the need to use government power, they struggled to come up with a positive vision for liberalism. They were great at identifying what was wrong with the old liberal order, but not so good at identifying what should replace it.

This is not, needless to say, an academic problem. The issues Sabin wrestles with in Public Citizens are omnipresent in political life today. The Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” plan explicitly hearkens back to the heyday of big-government liberalism, even as the political right has made attacks on bureaucrats and government-imposed mandates central to its message. The COVID pandemic has underscored the need for a robust public-health infrastructure, but it has also revealed the ways government agencies are often plagued by inertia, internal politics, and bureaucratic imperatives that have little to do with actual problem-solving.

Given all this, it seemed like the perfect moment to talk with Sabin about his new book, and what it might tell us about the tensions and challenges of American liberalism. This conversation took place at Sabin’s home in New Haven. It has been edited for style and content.
—James Surowiecki

JAMES SUROWIECKI We traditionally think of the attack on big government as coming from the Reaganite right. But your book reminds us that the sharpest critics of the liberal order in the 1960s and 1970s were, for the most part, on the left. Why?

PAUL SABIN The place to start is that the administrative state had grown enormously since the New Deal, and was intervening in modern American life in many different ways, wielding science and technology to transform the country. So you have liberals who start thinking about the rights of citizens in relation to this bureaucracy and saying the government shouldn’t be able to act in indiscriminate ways and with unchecked power. There’s a sense that the individual could get lost in the institutions, and a sense that the citizen is not being represented. At the same time, a new theory emerges on the left about “regulatory capture”: how government agencies are increasingly representing the industries that they’re supposed to be regulating. And all this is happening under the shadow of the bomb, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War.

A dominant narrative at the time was that this active government was initiating policies to advance economic growth, and we have a boom in prosperity during which we’re going to build highways and send men to the moon. We’re building this amazing future, and government is at the head of it. It’s a positive vision of government.

Then these left-liberal critics start showing how that vision is fundamentally flawed. Robert Caro’s 1974 book The Power Broker is a great illustration of this attack. Caro scrutinizes one of the leading city builders of this period, Robert Moses, who was developing the whole New York area. Moses was a giant of administrative power. And Caro shows him as a power-obsessed destroyer of communities and nature. I think that epitomizes the critique of the administrative, technocratic state coming from the left. But then the problem liberals face is: What’s the story that comes after that?

JS That’s really the central tension at the heart of your book—that for all the good they did, and as on-point as their critique of the regulatory state was, they failed to provide a coherent, politically viable replacement. Yes, they were correct that big-government liberalism was often cozy and corrupt. But they didn’t really have a good plan for how to reform it.

PS That’s right. The public-interest movement still really wanted the government to do things. They fervently believed that government should be protecting the public. Clean air, clean water, all those laws are about mobilizing the government to play that protective role. But at the same time, their movement was fundamentally critical of the government as an actor.

The challenge the public-interest movement faced, and the tension within liberalism that I’m trying to get at, is: How do you simultaneously articulate the positive vision for government while also overseeing a movement devoted to critiquing the government?

JS As you said, despite their skepticism of government, public-interest groups play a key role in the spate of progressive legislation passed in the early 1970s: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and so on. Some of those laws created or empowered new executive agencies, and all of them expanded the power of the government. How did they make sense of that?

PS What’s interesting about that legislation is that it reflects a distrust of the agencies and a rejection of the more cooperative and flexible approach of the late 1960s. On one hand, it empowers the agencies to do more and gives them lots of tools and enforcement powers. But at the same time, it says: We don’t really trust you enough to give you discretion to do whatever you want. We’re going to give you these clear, tough mandates. There’s this underlying idea that we need to make laws that are government-proof.

JS Was that idea naive?

PS Well, the public-interest liberals imagined that they were, themselves, becoming a permanent part of this process. They were planning to represent the citizenry and keep a constant sense of pressure on the government.

JS There’s also a subtle element to this that you bring out near the end of the book. One of the problems with the Nader-ite critique is that while the public-interest movement is fully aware of regulatory capture, coziness, and corruption, it doesn’t seem interested in (or maybe doesn’t even see) potential problems with overregulation or with the costs of bureaucracy and that these might erode support for government action.

PS I think that’s true. Interestingly, Jimmy Carter was trying to deal with these problems. When he’s elected president in 1976, he comes in as a reformer. He hires a lot of public-interest lawyers right out of the liberal advocacy movement. He has a list of all the ways he’s going to open up regulatory processes and executive agencies. He tries to have an active government, but one that is more efficient, more effective. And he believes that’s how the Democrats are going to protect liberalism.

Ultimately, though, he fails. He doesn’t sell it. Conservatives attack him and, ironically, so do the environmental- and nonprofit-advocacy communities. The Environmental Protection Agency itself is actually an innovator in regulatory reform in the Carter years. It starts trying to take regulatory costs into account and adopt more flexible, market-oriented approaches. But that comes under significant attack from the left. There’s a lot of skepticism about the whole idea of looking at regulatory costs. There’s a sense that the idea of regulatory costs is just conjured up by the right. The public-interest liberals criticize Carter’s economic advisors as economic gunslingers. They say things like, “They trade lives for dollars.”

JS That speaks to one of the interesting things about the public-interest movement: it spends a lot of the 1970s attacking liberals, its putative allies. It’s as though they don’t see what’s coming down the road, don’t understand how much worse it’s going to get with Reagan.

PS Nader, for instance, was, and continues to be, very moralistic and not a person of compromise. And I think that Nader also found it strategically advantageous to attack his friends—and he found success in doing so. There were huge Democratic majorities in Congress. So it’s important to remember that in the 1970s, the public-interest movement was pushing against what it saw as a very powerful Democratic Party, which controlled Congress with an iron fist and was not about to lose control. So it was safe to attack these Democratic congressmen. Unlike today, when you have Joe Manchin as your fiftieth vote and there’s a sense of vulnerability, of the whole thing hanging by a thread.

JS Your book feels very timely. The issues you’re dealing with haven’t gone away at all. In fact, we’re still wrestling with them. COVID has been very interesting in this regard. We’re trying to find the same balance: recognizing that agencies like the CDC could have done a better job of dealing with COVID while also recognizing that we still need those agencies.

PS Yes, you also see the sort of tension I explore in the book in the COVID response, in the sense that the government has been seen screwing up in all these different ways, that it may be untrustworthy in communicating or misrepresenting information and that it has been slow and ineffective. But at the same time, the importance of the government responding to COVID is vitally clear. This crisis does capture some of that tension, where you call for reform of agencies that you also fervently believe must exist and that you are counting on. You don’t want to attack them so much that you destroy them. COVID has accentuated the need for government, but there is also the sense that the distrust of government that has built up over a long period of time is really coming home to roost.

JS Do you think there’s something particularly American about this tension? Is there something American about this distrust of centralized power in particular?

PS We have seen public-interest citizen activism arising elsewhere in the world since the 1960s. It’s not unique to the United States. But I think that there are some significant differences. Many European countries tend to have more authority centralized in the administrative state, more administrative capacity, and a stronger state and welfare institutions. When it comes to trust in expertise and in the state, you can also see higher levels of that trust in Europe. Resistance to the government undertaking climate policy or public health policy is higher in the US.

JS Have liberals gotten better at recognizing the complexities inherent in government action?

PS I’m not sure. We are living in a different moment right now. Desire for the government to act has intensified. The climate emergency has pushed a lot of other concerns aside. And the backlash to Trump has, to some extent, unified liberals.

There’s a sense of possibility on the left for an expansive government. That’s why you see so much hearkening back to the New Deal: We’ve got the Green New Deal—we’re going to do this big, transformative government action. One example of that is the way some people have tried to go back and reclaim Robert Moses, countering the critique made against Moses’s New Deal approach by saying that Moses was creating public goods in a way that we struggle to do today.

You can think of the giant public pools and the beaches and the parks he built. There’s a sense among some on the left that we need to empower the state to do those types of things again. You hear a lot of criticism of citizen advocates for getting in the way of the public interest, not representing it.

But the history I write about sounds a cautionary note. We need to remember what a previous generation of people on the left thought about these big, transformative projects, like urban highways, and really think about what we’re undertaking and how we’re doing it. And then make sure we’re considering its different aspects.

The larger question we face is whether it is possible to create those kinds of public goods again, while taking in account the lessons of these critics. Can you combine the two in some way? Can you have an active government building big things while also looking out for citizens and the environment?

Paul Sabin is a professor of history and American studies at Yale, and the author of Public Citizens and The Bet.
James Surowiecki is a consulting editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
November 1, 2021


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