I've previously said the old debate about the size of the state doesn't interest me so much. Stein takes a very different view. He starts off by talking about the frightening increase in the size of the US debt, and how little we have to show for it. Sure enough,debt was even higher as a proportion of GDP just after the second world war. But America had just defeated two other great powers, and emerged as the strongest country on earth. And it faced little or no economic competition from a ruined Europe and Japan for a generation, to say nothing of China.
The heart of the problem for Steyn, though, is not the size in isolation. It is the fact that big government means a steadily smaller citizen and society. State control undermines self-reliance and promotes passivity and dependence. People come to believe that "big government happy juice" is the solution to all problems, not doing anything about issues themselves. "We have devolved from republican self-government to a micro- regulated nursery."
It is not so much a matter of taxation as, essentially, a moral problem. Too much government enfeebles and infantilizes people. People end up permanently on benefits or other support, without initiative or energy or control over their own lives.
Ordinary people have less power to control their lives free from the encroachments of regulatory agencies and judges. The government penalizes success and rewards failure. The welfare state destroys families, destroys incentives and is unsustainable, he says, as Greece shows. So far so libertarian, (although much better written than average - rollicking, witty and sometimes laugh-out loud funny.)
Most importantly for my interests, he asks (p273) what the next big economic transition is.
As disastrous as the squandering of America's money has been, the squandering of its human capital is even worse.
Agricultural work is gone or performed by the undocumented. Lower-skill manufacturing has gone to China. And 40% of Americans work in low- paid service jobs.
What happens when more supermarkets move to computerized checkouts with R2D2 registers? .. When manufacturing was outsourced, they moved into low-paying service jobs or better paying cubicle jobs - so-called "professional service" often deriving from the ever-swelling accounting and legal administration that now attends almost any activity in America.
What comes next?
Or more to the point, what if there is no "next?"
He sees the answer in the decay of California and the destruction of Detroit. Increasingly ineffective government preys on the remaining productive sectors to bail out failures.
The functional illiteracy rate in Detroit is 50%, he says. The homicide rate is frightening. Who will really want to create jobs there? GM has one worker for every ten refugees and dependents - and had to be bailed out by the government.
Detroit, he says, is the natural conclusion to big statism. It is what is next - even if not immediately.
Decay sets in imperceptibly, but it accelerates, and by the time you notice it, it's hard to reverse.
The welfare state is less a social safety net than a kind of cage - a large cage but a cage nonetheless.
It is a corruscating critique. We end up with obesity, drugs, family breakdown, educational collapse, unemployment and crime.
I don't think this is where we are going, and I'll explain why. But it is a scary dystopian vision, all the more so today when French banks are on the brink, the US labor market is faltering, and Congress is bickering about another $400 billion stimulus.