In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville worried that someday America would lose its liberty to “…a network of small complicated rules…” reducing citizens to sheep with the government their “shepherd.” He termed this soft tyranny or despotism.
Today, the federal government has more than 180,000 complicated rules, not all of them small. In 1979, we had “only” 30,000. That was the year the late U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) said, “The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty.”
In our modern republic, regulations have largely supplanted law. The thought that well-trained technocrats would run government has its origins in the Progressive era and men such as President Woodrow Wilson who saw the Constitution as an archaic document, one that was insufficient to the industrial age. Wilson especially viewed the Constitution’s separation of powers, balancing one branch of government off against the other, as worthy of scorn.
Wilson’s cadre of civil servants has burgeoned. By 1960, 40,000 regulators worked for the federal government, in 2013, almost 140,000. But those 140,000 regulators are far more potent than they were 50 years ago due to the information age’s increases in productivity. In 1960, there were only 2,000 computers in the entire nation. Today, every bureaucrat has access to at least one computer. Accounting for productivity advances, the federal regulatory corps isn’t three times more powerful than it was in 1960; it’s 11 times more powerful.
Productive bureaucrats can write more rules. From 1960 to 1962 the Federal Register, the publication in which all new federal regulations are published, ran about 14,000 pages every year. Today’s yearly Federal Register page count typically hits 80,000 pages.
Rules erode liberty while also hitting us in our pocketbooks. The Competitive Enterprise Institute estimates the annual cost of complying with federal rules as being greater than the total of individual income taxes and corporate income taxes.
Tax policy and government spending are two more tools that progressive practitioners of big government use to shape our behavior. With the former, progressive tax rate and loopholes inform decisions on how much to work, how much risk to take and how to invest. With the latter, each dollar spent by government, whether taxed, printed or borrowed, is a dollar less of goods and services that the free economy can spend as it so chooses.
Together, four factors can be measured to gauge the extent of soft tyranny in America: regulators, rules, tax rates, and federal spending as a share of the economy. The result is the Soft Tyranny Index.
This Soft Tyranny Index shows that America has seen two significant peaks of federal domestic interventionary power since 1960: 1980 and 2008 to present. But, federal soft tyranny’s rise has neither been unbroken nor is it inevitable, as seen during President Reagan’s time in office, and again from the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 to 9/11—although, even after 2001, soft tyranny averaged about the same as it was during the Clinton years, not beginning to seriously ratchet up until the Democrats retook both houses of Congress after the 2006 elections.
The same principles used to make the Soft Tyranny Index at the federal level can be applied to the states as well. Doing so shows that the states with the worst combination of regulators, spending, and high tax rates are: New York, California, Vermont, New Jersey and Hawaii. At the other end of the liberty ledger: Texas, South Dakota, Nevada, New Hampshire and Tennessee. One common link with the five best states: no income tax.
As astute conservative readers might surmise, the 10 states with the most liberty generated an average of 64 percent more private economic growth from 2002 to 2012 than did the 10 big government states.
While Texas had the least soft tyranny among the states, it only tied for first in one of four categories: top income tax rate. Texas might do well to see how other states boosted their ratings. For instance, Indiana came in first for having the leanest regulatory bureaucracy—this after former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ efforts to trim it. Texas was number two. Delaware, a blue state, actually had the lowest percentage of state and local spending as a share of the private economy with Texas again number two. Delaware has focused on pro-business policies that make it home to many corporate operations.
The most important takeaway here for Texans is this: the Texas model of more liberty and less government works. Now, the challenge will be to reintroduce America to its own heritage of liberty and the prosperity it begets.
Chuck DeVore is the Vice President of Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Follow him on Twitter