Scale vs. Scope

St. Lawrence University Economics professor Steve Horwitz has posted a great discussion of the expansion of government on the blog he shares with several other writers, The Austrian Economist.  He argues that

it’s one thing for government to grow in scale, but when government grows in scope is when the real trouble starts.  The key to [this] ratchet effect argument is that crises lead not just to government “scaling up” but to it acquiring powers that it didn’t have before, i.e., a change in the scope of its powers. The other part of the ratchet effect argument is that when the crisis passes, the government might reduce its exercise of these new powers, but not all the way back to the pre-crisis level.  What people often miss is that this also means that those new powers lay dormant waiting for the next feasible situation in which they can quickly be activated. The long-run damage comes from the acquisition of those powers in the first place, not just their exercise in the specific crisis in which they are acquired.

Obama, Horwitz concludes, “may well expand the scale, but it was Bush who ratcheted up the scope so that any Obama expansion will happen much more easily.”  This long-term trend of continuing government expansion makes sense, of course, in light of Jefferson’s contention that “[t]he natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,” an tendency which makes work for the preservation freedom all the more vital.

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