America’s Hidden Government

The Costs of a Submerged State

Over the course of the past century, the American state -- the sum of all government programs and policies -- has grown dramatically larger and more complex. From a massive standing army to an extensive social safety net to significant taxation, from mortgage guarantees to student loans to environmental protections, the range and scale of government activity taken for granted by American citizens today would have been inconceivable to their great-grandparents.

All this activity has generally improved and become intricately embedded in citizens' lives -- which is why attempts to cut the government back tend to be unpopular and unsuccessful. Yet many also feel that the government has started to overreach and that its costs and burdens are becoming unsustainable -- which is why bemoaning the extent and growth of the American state is also a perennial feature of political debate. This tension between the fact of a large, active state and doubts about its value is a distinctive feature of the American political scene.

One consequence and driver of the contested legitimacy of the American state is the degree to which so much government work has gone underground in recent decades, far more than in other advanced industrial countries, which is the subject of the political scientist Suzanne Mettler's important new book, The Submerged State. Increasingly, Mettler argues, many government policies in the United States are designed to be hidden from view, executed not through direct, highly visible legislation but rather through indirect and passive mechanisms, such as tax breaks, leading citizens to underestimate both the scale of government activity in general and the extent to which it benefits them individually. Thus, by making it seem that Social Security pensions are connected to the taxes citizens themselves pay, or by transferring money to citizens not as outright grants but rather as mortgage interest tax deductions or tax exemptions on employer-provided health and retirement savings accounts, the structure of the submerged state disguises just who is getting what from the government and how.

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