Big Government – Chronicle of a Death Mistold

[draft 14 Feb 2019]

Since the 1970s the “death” of big government has been prophesied or willed by politicians and pundits many times. From Margaret Thatcher’s ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’ or Ronald Regan’s ‘government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem’ in the early 1980s, through Bill Clinton’s ‘the era of big government is over’ and the supposed triumph of ‘neoliberalism’ in 1990s, the death of ‘big government’ has been predicted or attempted. But is hasn’t really happened.

This section examines the two dominant sets of ideas that fuelled these movements. We summarise these as “can’t govern, won’t govern”.

“Can’t Govern” refers to the intellectual movement that rose to prominence in the 1990s under the rubric of “governance”. The core idea was that old-style “government” of sovereign nation-states could no longer work. Various reasons were advanced why this was so: globalization; the rise of the so-called ‘networked society’; the collapse of an old paradigm of ‘governmentality’ from social constructionism); etc. Many of these ideas came from what were generally regarded as ‘left’ sources.

“Won’t Govern” came mainly, by contrast, from the right of politics. Old ideas about “private good, public bad”, about the state being wasteful and markets efficient, about the only legitimate role of the state being a ‘nightwatchman’ safeguarding property and contract rights. Originally simply called the “new right” in the 1980s this trend was gradually relabeled “neoliberalism” in the 1990s (mainly by its critics).

This heady confluence of ideas was supposedly fundamentally undermining the Keynesian welfare states created in the post-WWII advanced countries and creating a new era of neoliberal ‘governance’. As we argue throughout the rest of the book, whilst these movements did bring about some changes they were often more contradictory and less radical than their proponents (and in the case of neoliberalism, critics) claimed for them.

[This idea is developed more fully in this article: ‘Can’t govern’, ‘won’t govern’—the strange confluence of governance and neoliberalism, Public Money & Management, 2016]