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.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.