Bush Was a Big-Government Disaster

He expanded the state, and the idea that the state is incompetent

Now that George W. Bush has finally left office, here's a challenge to a nation famous for its proud tradition of invention: Can somebody invent a machine capable of fully measuring the disaster that was the Bush presidency?

Yes, yes, I know that attitudes towards presidencies are volatile. Harry Truman was hated when he left office and look at him now; he's so highly regarded that President Bush thought of him as a role model. There are, I'm sure, still a few William Henry Harrison dead-enders around, convinced that the 31 days the broken-down old general spent as president will someday receive the full glory they deserve.

In a way that was inconceivable when he took office, Bush—the advance man for the "ownership society," smaller and more trustworthy government, and a humble foreign policy—increased the size and scope of the federal government to unprecedented levels. At the same time, he constantly flashed signs of secrecy, duplicity, ineffectiveness and outright incompetence.

Think for a moment about the thousands of Transportation Security Administration screeners—newly minted government employees all—who continue to confiscate contact-lens solution and nail clippers while, according to nearly every field test, somehow failing to notice simulated bombs in passenger luggage.

Or schoolchildren struggling under No Child Left Behind, which federalized K-12 education to an unprecedented degree with nothing to show for it other than greater spending tabs. Or the bizarrely structured Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the largest entitlement program created since LBJ. Or the simple reality that taxpayers now guarantee some $8 trillion in inscrutable loans to a financial sector that collapsed from inscrutable loans.

Such programs were not in any way foisted on Bush, the way that welfare reform had been on Bill Clinton; they were signature projects, designed to create a legacy every bit as monumental and inspiring as Laura Bush's global literacy campaign.

The most basic Bush numbers are damning. If increases in government spending matter, then Bush is worse than any president in recent history. During his first four years in office—a period during which his party controlled Congress—he added a whopping $345 billion (in constant dollars) to the federal budget. The only other presidential term that comes close? Bush's second term. As of November 2008, he had added at least an additional $287 billion on top of that (and the months since then will add significantly to the bill). To put that in perspective, consider that the spendthrift LBJ added a mere $223 billion in total additional outlays in his one full term.

If spending under Bush was a disaster, regulation was even worse. The number of pages in the Federal Registry is a rough proxy for the swollen expanse of the regulatory state. In 2001, some 64,438 pages of regulations were added to it. In 2007, more than 78,000 new pages were added. Worse still, argues the Mercatus Center economist Veronique de Rugy, Bush is the unparalleled master of "economically significant regulations" that cost the economy more than $100 million a year. Since 2001, he jacked that number by more than 70 percent. Since June 2008 alone, he introduced more than 100 economically significant regulations.

At this late date, it may be pointless to argue about the grounds for the invasion of Iraq, which even Bush has (finally) acknowledged were built on sand rather than bedrock. The Iraq war has lasted longer than any American conflict except for Vietnam and has cost more than any shooting match except for World War II. Leave aside for a moment the more than 4,200 U.S. deaths and 30,000 casualties, and ask a very basic question: Did President Bush's prosecution of the war—he declared an end to major hostilities in May 2003—and his direction of the ongoing occupation make you feel better about the government's ability to execute core functions?

Or, like the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina (later made good by shoveling billions of pork-laden tax dollars to the Gulf area) and the rushed, secretive, and ever-changing bailout of the financial sector, did it make you want to simply despair?

Bush's legacy is thus a bizarro version of Ronald Reagan's. Reagan entered office declaring that government was not the solution to our problems, it was the problem. Ironically, he demonstrated that government could do some important things right—he helped tame inflation and masterfully drew the Cold War to a nonviolent triumph for the Free World. By contrast, Bush has massively expanded the government along with the sense that government is incompetent.

That is no small accomplishment—and its pernicious effects will last long after Bush has moved back to Texas, and President Obama has announced that his stimulus package, originally tagged at $750 billion and already up to $825 billion, will cost $1 trillion or more. Bush has cleared the way for President Obama to intervene more and more in the economy and every other aspect of American life.

Last July, the political scientists Philippe Aghion, Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc, and Andrei Shleifer wrote a paper titled "Regulation and Distrust" (PDF). Using data from the World Values Survey, the authors convincingly argue that "distrust influences not just regulation itself, but the demand for regulation." They found that "distrust fuels support for government control over the economy. What is perhaps most interesting about this finding...is that distrust generates demand for regulation even when people realize that the government is corrupt and ineffective."

George W. Bush has certainly taught us that government really can't be trusted to be very effective, or open, or smart. He has also taught us that government can always get bigger on every level and every way. It's a sad lesson that we'll be learning for many years to come.

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com. A version of this ran in the Saturday, January 24, 2008 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Les||

    ...and masterfully drew the Cold War to a nonviolent triumph for the Free World.

    Except for the "non-violent" terrorists he supported in Nicaragua and the "non-violent" dictators and death-squads he supported in El Salvador and Guatemala.

  • ||

    Isn't a sense that the govt is incompetent a good thing, as it discourages people from looking to the govt to solve every problem?

    (I don't think people have such a sense; I think it's more of a "we need the right people in charge" thing)

  • Tyler||

    That picture of Bush is priceless!

  • ||

    Tulpa,

    Considering that our government was designed to be less than fully competent and efficient, it's all the more frightening to consider how much people want the government to do for them.

  • ||

    Those are pretty words Nick. But I fear they fall upon deaf ears. The only cries of Fear the Beast Government I hear, emanate solely from the lunatic fringe. No offense.

  • ||

    Nobody cares. "Bush gutted govt" helps govt, and will thus be all anyone hears. Politics is about power, not facts.

  • ||

    "The lunatic fringe"? Care to elaborate? The phrase, in and of itself, without context and specificity, means nothing.

  • ||

    Yes, Bush the Mad Deregulator, they'll call him. Why, he deregulated my mother! She got better, though.

  • ||

    libertymike,

    Warren means we libertarian types.

  • ||

    Government got a lot bigger in the 1980s. Ronnie expanded the WoD. He also gave us the War on Porn.

  • BDB||

    "libertymike | January 26, 2009, 4:04pm | #
    Government got a lot bigger in the 1980s. Ronnie expanded the WoD. He also gave us the War on Porn."

    Libertymike! How DARE you! St. Ronnie was a libertarian hero! Making deficit spending OK for Republicans was a GOOD thing to do!

    Everything else was all Tip O'Neil's fault!

    /snark

  • BDB||

    Seriously Reagan did some good things, but he did a lot of bad thigns too, and this cannonization (and borderline homoerotic obsession over him) by Republicans is spiraling out of control.

  • Mister DNA||

    This thread feels empty and cold without TallDave's valuable insights.

  • BDB||

    "Mister DNA | January 26, 2009, 4:28pm | #
    This thread feels empty and cold without TallDave's valuable insights."

    I hope you're being sarcastic.

  • Reinmoose||

    just poking fun, but...

    Nick, I didn't see this cross-posted on Big Hollywood. I wonder why...

  • ||

    Except for the "non-violent" terrorists he supported in Nicaragua and the "non-violent" dictators and death-squads he supported in El Salvador and Guatemala.

    Sore loser.

  • Les||

    Sore loser.

    I'm also hoping for sarcasm here.

  • Mike M.||

    Isn't a sense that the govt is incompetent a good thing, as it discourages people from looking to the govt to solve every problem?

    With a few exceptions, the government by and large IS incompetent. This is after all the basic principle that libertarianism is based on.

    This would be obvious to far more people if we had a mainstream media today that was worth a damn.

  • Justen||

    @Mike: name one of those exceptions...

  • ||

    "With a few exceptions, the government by and large IS incompetent. This is after all the basic principle that libertarianism is based on."

    Indeed. And whenever people believe in that fundamental truth and manage to get elected, they tend to prove themselves right.

    I don't understand why the modifier "incompetent" can't be separated from the noun "government." Government is whatever we make it to be in a democracy.

    Do any of you realize that this rhetoric is straight from Reagan republicanism and its corporatist propaganda? Freedom has nothing to do with this rhetoric. I don't understand why libertarians are happy being such tools.

  • cunnivore||

    Tony, sure it's possible for government to be run competently. But the natural tendency is otherwise, since it is in the nature of government to reward incompetence and corruption.

    True, the people should be vigilant about these things, but vigilance takes a lot of work, and most people are far too busy with making a living and taking care of themselves and their families to concern themselves with the deep inner workings of govt.

  • ||

    The real damage under Bush is already being overshadowed by the damage that will follow in the wake of the policy announcements and presidential orders made by Obama today (01/26). Bush is no longer news. Bush is no longer the problem. We now have a much more dangerous man at the helm.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    You are so right. And at least half the danger is in the fact that while this may be true on the right

    Seriously Reagan did some good things, but he did a lot of bad thigns too, and this cannonization (and borderline homoerotic obsession over him) by Republicans is spiraling out of control.

    it is now in full swing on the Left.

    I keep swearing that if I see just one more MSM article telling us just how great and grand and good Obama is, I'm going to go find me an MSM reporter and barf all over him/her/it/whatever. Then get myself taken off to the hospital, at tax payer expense thank you.

    All hail the Big O.

  • ||

    """"Bush is no longer news. Bush is no longer the problem. We now have a much more dangerous man at the helm.""""

    Some people just can't understand the disparity between 8 years, and one or two weeks.

  • Hope and Change||

    So we still torture, we still warrantlessly wiretap, we still aren't giving people in Gitmo trials, and now we're going to spend another $2T.

    Yep, good thing Bush is gone.

  • Lessons Learned||

    Lesson #1: Never fear a man the media despises.

    Fear the man they love.

  • ||

    Big government=competency=oxymoron.

    Tell us again how FDR saved us during the depression? Why NYC is such a mecca? Describe to us about the glories of Big government states like Massachusetts, NY, Michigan, Illinois and California.

    Truly this article was written by inbred politburo members.

  • ||

    Bush never believed in small government in the first place.

    That's what "compassionate conservative" meant all along. Code for big-government social-conservatism.

    "Compassionate" as in "generous" as in "with your wallet".

    In retrospect, it's pretty obvious.

  • ||

    It's amazing that "Government Is The Problem" conservatives are somehow surprised that Bush's "Government Is The Problem" administration created an enormous number of problems. Shocker!

  • ||

    So far there is $2 trillion and 20 dead Pakistanis of agreement. Bush's Keynesian welfar-warfare statism lives. Of course, stem cell researches and third world condom users will no longer be denied their right to enslave US tax serfs.

    I bet the Obama felchers at NBC won't send out Dr. Bob Arnot to see if those dead Pakistanis were really bad guys, like they did when Billy bob KKKlintoon blew up that children's vitamin factory in Sudan.

  • ||

    Government has gotten bigger? Well, that's bound to be upsetting for the half-dozen or so people on the planet who think government should be smaller. But it is good news for everyone else, who wants the government to take care of them and solve their problems.

  • ||

    Government creates almost every problem it claims to be causing.

    Even morons like you Pirate Jo.

    Read page 1 of today's "Washington Post." The government water authority in DC supressed the information that it was selling water with high lead levels for years, and exams no show that the kids drinking it are permanently damaged. And that is even before they went to the public school lobotomy centers that produced you.

  • Colleen McCool||

    When will we declare our independence from big government's scandalous waste of our precious lives and resources?
    http://campaignforliberty.com/

    The real visionaries, who laid down our laws, those who defined what an American patriot would be, were rebels with just cause. It's not just our right it's our patriotic duty to rebel against government corruption.

    We would all be better off if we grew our own vegetable/herb gardens and did not expect the government or a pill to cure all our ills.
    http://www.downsizedc.org/

    Leaders responsible for current quagmire will one-day answer to a higher power for their crimes against humanity. It's time to end the terror by changing our intrusive, big-bully policies, both foreign and domestic. The monetary and environmental costs are staggering and the human suffering unconscionable.

    Law Enforcement Against Prohibition has kicked off the 'We Can Do It Again' project, calling for an end to drug prohibition.
    http://www.WeCanDoItAgain.com
    http://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/5663/t/4571/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=797

    We are looking for a Commander and chief of peace. President Obama has taken the first step toward closing Guantanamo. Please take action today and thank him for taking this step and urge him to end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have abandoned our Constitution and the founder's ideal of nonintervention.
    http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/1312/t/6850/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=26457

  • ||

    No, Bruce, you misunderstand me. I'm just about as big a fan of small government as you will ever find. I don't consider it an insult to be labeled a Randian, and if there was a Galt's Gulch out there I could escape to, I'd be on the first boat. Yes, as Colleen above points out, big government is wasting our lives and resources.

    My point is that for every enthusiast who joins the campaign for liberty, there are a hundred useless tools who think Obama is going to pay for their houses. We are hopelessly - I mean truly hopelessly - outnumbered, my friend.

    Look around you - how many people really have the stomach for freedom and the responsibilities it entails? Most people - and by that I mean the overwhelming majority of them - will happily put up with a boondoggle like Social Security if it relieves them of the risk and responsibility for their own financial planning. People are lined up left and right to get a nationalized, government-run healthcare system. I wish it wasn't true, but most people really do want the government to take care of them, provide for their security, and pay their bills.

  • Qwerty||

    I live on the Gulf Coast and went through Katrina. The federal governments reaction was basically the same as it's been for other recent hurricanes. The democrats, race hustlers, and the media used it as a political club to beat Bush with and as a fund raising and voter turnout tool. Also I believe the original TSA plan did not call for Federal workers. Democrats threatened to hold up the bill. Other than those two, everything else was Bush's fault.

  • MaxLiberty||

    Great article. Bush is clearly the worst president of my lifetime, which is saying something considering that I lived through Carter too.

    From the article:

    "Bush has cleared the way for President Obama to intervene more and more in the economy and every other aspect of American life."

    Very true, of course, but it's actually worse than that. Bush will now spend the rest of his life justifying his disasters, thereby giving aid and comfort to the forces of ever-greater government tyranny.

  • Ben1||


    George W. Bush has certainly taught us that government really can't be trusted to be very effective, or open, or smart. He has also taught us that government can always get bigger on every level and every way.



    "Us"? What "us", Nick? I knew this when the cops bloodied the demonstrators in 1968, and when the national guard got a free pass for murdering those students at Kent State in 1970. I knew this as a consequence of the drug war, and censorship, and while watching lobbyists buy legislation and legislators. I knew this as the commerce clause was inverted, the 4th amendment eviscerated, the 2nd misrepresented in grand sophist tradition, and as we invaded Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I knew this was why the FCC limited access to public broadcasting to corporate entities; when, just as I expected, the supreme court blandly approved ex post facto laws; as highway funds were used to coerce states into toeing the federal line, as the arbitrary and outright theft of people's property and funds was approved and undertaken by the federal government.

    The only conclusion I can draw is that you've been fast asleep for decades. Well, glad you've finally woken up. The bad news is, it's too late to change anything. The public is content to be treated as sheep, the focus is now safety at any expense, including that of loss of liberty. Liberty itself, originally the entire point of the constitution, now ranks behind any item on any government agenda.

    Welcome to the American Distributed Dictatorship, an ironclad rule of 545 über-powerful nobles from the self-selected aristocracy of the Anointed Two Parties.

    Given all you've missed, dear Nick, perhaps you should change your nom de plume to "Rip Van Winkle."

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