Debt debate: the myth of the good old days before big government
As Republicans focus on budget cuts, let's travel to the 1800s to see what it really looked like before Big Bad Federal Government. Economic downturns resulted in food riots, social unrest, industrial violence. We don't have that today, thanks to big government.
Once upon a time, Americans were sturdy and self-sufficient. They didn’t rely on politicians for a handout; instead, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.Skip to next paragraph
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Then along came the Big Bad Federal Government, with its needless services and regulations, softening a once-proud people into a nation of wimps. And it left us with an enormous unpaid bill, which we’re passing along to our children and grandchildren.
That’s the myth you’ve been hearing from Republicans over the past few weeks, during the debate over raising the federal debt ceiling. Like all such stories, it contains a kernel of truth: The federal deficit is enormous, and we must find new ways to rein it in. The only real question is how.
And it’s here that the GOP myth-machine descends into full-scale fantasy. All we need to do is cut the budget, Republicans say, and all will be well.
It won’t be. And to see why, it might be useful to look at what America really looked like – not how the GOP imagines it – in the years before Big Government.
It wasn’t pretty, especially when the economy took its periodic dips. Every student of American economic history has to memorize the dates of these downturns, which have struck like clockwork every two or three decades: 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, and so on. And before our own era, every crisis brought with it massive social upheaval, disorder, and violence.
Consider the so-called Panic of 1837, when an estimated one-third of factory workers lost their jobs. With food prices rising – and without any sustained government assistance – Americans took to the streets to demanded “bread, meat, rent, and fuel,” as protesters chanted. And when their pleas fell on deaf ears, they rioted.
In New York, a mob raided the store of a wealthy flour merchant. “Barrels of flour were tumbled into the street from the doors, and thrown in rapid succession from the windows,” one newspaper reported. Women filled their aprons with flour, “like the crones who strip the dead in battle,” the outraged paper added.
Twenty years later, amid the next great downturn, 15,000 unemployed protesters gathered in Manhattan’s Tompkins Square Park, marched to Wall Street, and shouted, “We want work” as they paraded around the Stock Exchange. A mob would later occupy City Hall, until US marines forced them out.
But the greatest violence occurred on America’s industrial frontier. In Pittsburgh, for example, militiamen fired on crowds that had seized railroad switches during an 1877 strike. Twenty people were killed; in response, mobs burned over 100 locomotives and 2,000 railroad cars. Over the next quarter-century, the National Guard and the regular US Army were called out over 500 times to quell labor disputes.