Boiling the Frog: or, Great Moments in Government Gigantism

Posted on 2011 November 27


How do you boil a frog? You put it in a pot of tap water, then turn on the heat. The water slowly warms up. The frog, an amphibian, adapts nicely to any change in its water. The flames continue to add heat, making the pot warmer and warmer. But the frog adapts, never thinking to hop out. Hotter and hotter grows the water; still the frog adjusts. Finally the water comes to a full boil. The frog? Dead. Cooked.

That’s how you boil a frog — slowly. The frog never realizes how much trouble it’s in until too late.

We Americans are like the frog, our society slowly cooking as its ever-enlarging government increases pressure on us all. Yet we adapt — not because we’re amphibians, but because we’re ingenious and enterprising — and we continue with our lives, oblivious of the growing heat. Entitlements, regulations, and foreign wars bubble through the social pot, cooking the life out of our hopes for real freedom and prosperity. One day, our society will be steamed pink, the American dream parboiled into oblivion. That’s when we’ll notice how much trouble we’re in, when it’s too late.

How is it that, no matter who wins the elections, American government keeps getting bigger? We behave like addicts, who take more to feel better, but then that ends up making us feel worse, so we take even more to feel better, and so forth. We’ve switched on the heat, and when that doesn’t make us happy, we turn it up even more.

We’ve managed to thrive for decades despite a government that’s expanded from almost nothing to a vast bureaucracy that inhales nearly half the economy. Does that mean we’re okay? No. We’re like the rich kid who’s slowly squandering the vast wealth handed down to him by his parents.

Every addiction comes a cropper, and every wastrel ends up broke. It’s just a matter of time.

It doesn’t matter, by the way, whether you’re liberal or conservative: your programs will add to the size of government, and then your enemies will take charge for awhile and their programs will add to the size of government. Democrats like to strengthen regulation of business and increase transfer payments to the poor; Republicans like to strengthen regulation of liberals and increase payments to the military. Either way, our government gets bigger, its very size interfering with the hopes of each party. But they soldier on, too busy fighting each other to notice they’re both getting cooked.

While we’re waiting to descend into third-world status, boiled and salted, it’s instructive to look back at the big turning points when American government broke through its constitutional bounds.

The worst moments include the acts of 1913 (which took vast powers from the states and huge tax dollars from the people) and the Supreme Court decisions of 1937-1941 (which gave Congress the authority to make any law it wished, in direct violation of limits set forth by the Commerce Clause). (But then, the Constitution is whatever the judges say it is.)

Also important were the many wars we’ve waged. “War is the health of the State,” as they say. First came the Mexican War (which expanded America’s physical size and showed that we can take what we want from others); then we fought the Civil War (which ended slavery but also established that, once you’re part of the Land of the Free, you can never leave); later, we fought the Spanish-American War (which gave us an empire), World War I (which got us into the habit of intervening in other countries’ disputes), World War II (which cleaned up the mess created by World War I), the Cold War (which cleaned up the mess created by World War II), the Korean War (more cleanup), the Vietnam War (more cleanup), the Lebanese intervention (more cleanup), the Bosnian Action (more cleanup), the Gulf War (to force retention of our oil supply), the Iraq War (to clean up the mess from the Gulf War), and the Afghan War (to clean up the mess from decades of meddling in Middle East affairs).

Sure, there are arguments that favor each of these wars, and our soldiers are the best in the world and always deserve our thanks for doing what we ask of them. But look at how many wars we’ve pushed them into! And each war turns up the heat, just a little, on our freedoms at home.

By the way, have you ever wondered why we needed a constitutional amendment in 1919 to prohibit alcohol but none at all to wage the federal War on Drugs? (I’m referring to that little campaign that’s caused the deaths of over 30,000 in Mexico and put millions of drug users into our jails so that the Land of the Free contains the most incarcerated population on Earth.) It was those Supreme Court decisions starting in 1937 that tore huge holes in the constitutional restrictions on Congress. But let’s cut the justices some slack: they were cornered by FDR, who’d tried to pack the Court with extra judges who would vote his way. The conservative justices made a backroom decision to be more supportive of FDR’s social programs, and he backed off. Politics is a dirty business.

So. With the boiled frog in mind, herewith is my list of great moments in American federal gigantism:

1798            Alien & Sedition Acts (suppression of 1st Amendment)

1861            Civil War (establishes that states cannot leave the Union)

1913            Creation of the Fed (beginning of unstable boom-and-bust cycles)

1913            16th Amendment (income tax begins to feed the behemoth)

1913            17th Amendment (state legislatures forfeit right to select senators, losing more autonomy)

1917            US in WWI (beginning of interventionism)

1929            Great Depression (vast increase in bureaucracies and transfer payments)

1933            FDR confiscates gold from citizens (beginning of power to inflate currency)

1937-41            Supreme Court decisions (dismantling of Commerce Clause, abrogation of 10th Amendment — NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel, US v. Darby, and Wickard v. Filburn)

1941            US in WWII (increase in interventionism, vast increase in bureaucracy)

1964            US escalates presence in Vietnam (increase in interventionism)

1965            Great Society (vast increase in bureaucracy and transfer payments)

1971            US goes off gold standard (start of worst US inflation)

1977            First CRA legislation (banks forced to lend to high-risk, low-income voters —ahem, mortgage holders; with later amendments, helped cause 2008 crash)

1981            Reagan administration (detour from gigantism: reduction in regulatory load, leading to long economic boom, tempered by increase in military spending)

1991            First Gulf War (expansion of interventionism)

1998            Bosnian conflict (expansion of interventionism)

2001            No Child Left Behind Act (erosion of states’ rights in education; expansion of spending coupled with decline in student performance compared to other nations)

2001            PATRIOT Act (vast increase in bureaucracy; warrantless spying abrogates 4th Amendment)

2006            Military Commissions Act (abrogates habeas corpus for “unlawful enemy combatants” and, by extension, for all citizens)

2003            US invades Iraq (increase in interventionism for “nation building”)

2004            Housing bubble (government lets business cronies place bets on mortgages using bank reserves, then manipulates CRA and interest rates and Fanny & Freddy so the poor can own homes)

2008            TARP (vast bailouts reward business cronies whose electoral bribes make them “too big to fail”)

2009            Tea Party rebellion (minor detour from gigantism)

2010            Healthcare reform (first time Americans are forced by law to purchase a product)

2011            Occupy movement (pressure to increase regulation and taxation of business)

. . . And there you have it, the slow boiling of America. We turned up the heat of government programs, here and there over the decades, until half of our entire economy now goes through federal and state coffers — our freedoms singed away, a reddened corpse the only remains of the original dream of liberty.

So next time you think the Feds should do something about a big problem, look again at the above list and remember that our government has been “doing something” for decades, yet the problems are worse than ever — the dangers more dire, the fat cats richer, the poor poorer, pollution threatening us all, students falling behind, our debt bigger than ever, etc etc. Think twice before turning the heat up even more: all you’ll accomplish is to rotate the dead frog’s body even faster inside the pot.

“Here lies America,” reads the epitaph. “It had big dreams and grew to greatness, but, in an excess of zeal, cooked itself into oblivion.”