How War Amplified Federal Power in the Twentieth Century

By Higgs, Robert | Ideas on Liberty, December 2001 | Go to article overview

How War Amplified Federal Power in the Twentieth Century


Higgs, Robert, Ideas on Liberty


After surveying the Western world in the past six centuries, Bruce Porter concluded: "a government at war is a juggernaut of centralization determined to crush any internal opposition that impedes the mobilization of militarily vital resources. This centralizing tendency of war has made the rise of the state throughout much of history a disaster for human liberty and rights."1 As a cause of the development of big government in the United States, however, war seldom receives its due.

World War I

Despite expansion during Woodrow Wilson's first term as president, the federal government on the eve of World War I remained small. In 1914, federal spending totaled less than 2 percent of GNP. The top rate of the recently enacted federal individual-income tax was 7 percent, on income over $500,000, and 99 percent of the population owed no income tax. The 402,000 federal civilian employees, most of whom worked for the Post Office, constituted about 1 percent of the labor force. The armed forces comprised fewer than 166,000 men on active duty. Although the federal government meddled in a few areas of economic life, prescribing railroad rates and bringing antitrust suits against a handful of unlucky firms, it was for most citizens remote and unimportant.

With US. entry into the Great War, the federal government expanded enormously in size, scope, and power. It virtually nationalized the ocean shipping industry. It did nationalize the railroad, telephone, domestic telegraph, and international telegraphic cable industries. It became deeply engaged in manipulating labor-management relations, securities sales, agricultural production and marketing, the distribution of coal and oil, international commerce, and markets for raw materials and manufactured products. Its Liberty Bond drives dominated the financial capital markets. It turned the newly created Federal Reserve System into a powerful engine of monetary inflation to help satisfy the government's voracious appetite for money and credit. In view of the more than 5,000 mobilization agencies of various sorts-boards, committees, corporations, administrations-contemporaries who described the 1918 government as "war socialism" were well justified.2

During the war the government built up the armed forces to a strength of four million officers and men, drawn from a prewar labor force of 40 million persons. Of those added to the armed forces after the US. declaration of war, more than 2.8 million, or 72 percent, were drafted.3 Men alone, however, did not make an army. They required barracks and training facilities, transportation, food, clothing, and health care. They had to be equipped with modern arms and great stocks of ammunition.

As the mobilization began, the requisite resources remained in the possession of private citizens. Although manpower could be obtained by conscription, public opinion would not tolerate the outright confiscation of all the property required to turn the men into a well-equipped fighting force. Still, ordinary market mechanisms threatened to operate too slowly and at too great an expense to facilitate the government's plans. The Wilson administration therefore resorted to the vast array of interventions mentioned earlier. All may be seen as devices to hasten the delivery of the requisite resources and to diminish the fiscal burden of equipping the huge conscript army for effective service in France.

Notwithstanding those contrivances to keep the Treasury's expenses down, taxes still had to be increased enormously-federal revenues rose by nearly 400 percent between fiscal 1917 and fiscal 1919-and even greater amounts had to be borrowed. The national debt swelled from $1.2 billion in 1916 to $25.5 billion in 1919.

To ensure that the conscription-based mobilization could proceed without obstruction, critics had to be silenced. The Espionage Act of June 15, 1917, penalized those convicted of willfully obstructing the enlistment services by fines up to $10,000 and imprisonment as long as 20 years. …

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