Now and again I like to have a play around with Ngram Viewer, which is a Google tool that allows people to search millions of digitized books, some dating back as far as 1500, for occurrences of phrases and words. Below is the resultant graph for occurences of the phrases: “we need more government, “we need less government” and “free markets” since 1920.
Occurences of the first two phrases have been multiplied by 700 in order to be able to compare them on the same graph with “free markets”, which has a much greater frequency. Google accounts for the fact that many more books are published in modernity by normalizing by the number of books published each year.
I think the results are quite interesting, but I do feel the need to be somewhat cautious because the phrases are not unambiguous. For example, the phrase “we need more government” might not only be written by someone arguing for more government, it could be produced by someone arguing against government but referring to his opposers – i.e. “they say we need more government, but I say they are wrong…” The same goes for “we need less government”, of course, but either way it might still give a good insight into how common arguments for more and less government were at any given time.
What might we say about these results, then? The significant increase in the occurences of the phrase “free markets” over the last four decades seems to suggest that the idea has finally earned its place at the table of mainstream political debate. Perhaps that suggests that most people (in the English-speaking world at least) have grown quite fond of all the wonderful things that have resulted from increased liberty, property rights and capitalism – such as greatly raised standards of living, longer life, improved health and diet, more leisure time, significantly increased material comfort etc. But, given the upward trend for “we need more government”, it seems whilst each generation has been enjoying the fruits of freedom they have also found themselves desiring to increase/extend the government’s powers. Which suggests a widespread belief that there is a positive correlation between the size of government and freedom and prosperity. Unfortunately, rational economic theory and the proponderance of evidence tells us the opposite is true.
The dip in the early seventies in the occurences of the phrase “we need more government” corresponds with a sharp increase in occurences of the phrase “we need less government”, which leads to the only ‘cross-over’ between the two phrase since the late fifties. This relatively brief flirtation with doubting the virtue and efficacy of government could be explained by the oil crisis that occurred in the UK in 1973 and a double-dip recession which followed in 1975.
Overall, though, the trend is clear: people have been demanding more and more government since the late fifties. perhaps the dip just before that throughout the early and mid fifties is the result of an instinctive aversion to any authority, as a result of having just fought tooth and nail against German national socialism.
“we need less government” reached its peak of popularity it seems during the late seventies and early eighties. That broadly correlates with the lead up to Thatcher and Reagan’s terms in office in the UK and the U.S. respectively. During their leaderships, however, the graph suggests that the notion of less government became less popular, perhaps because the mainstream media and intellectuals of the time concluded that “deregulation” and “laissez-faire” economic policies were to blame for economic recessions in the UK and the US during that period. The conclusions of the mainstream media and intellectuals of any given era generally become the beliefs of the common man. Since the nineties the voices calling for less government seem to have recovered their numbers somewhat, but not quite it appears to Thatcher and Reagan-era levels.
Since the turn of the millennium the disparity between “we need less government” and “we need more government” has more than doubled, which might suggest a disturbing trend that may be set to shape societies in the coming decades. It could indicate that, although free markets and economic liberty in general are being discussed much more widely than ever before, those arguing against them, or rather arguing against whatever it is they define as ‘free markets’ or ‘capitalism’, are winning the battle for people’s minds. Let’s hope not. Let’s hope that over the next century or so the red and green lines shoot up and the blue line drops like a stone.