What Kind of Century Will This Be?

by Harry Browne

January 3, 2002

It's natural to wonder what kind of year 2002 will be for you, for America, and for the world.

But I find myself still wondering what kind of century the 21st will be.

Will it be one of small government, progress, and mostly peace for America as the 19th was? Or will it be one of big government, coasting on past success, and conflict as the 20th was?

The contrast between the two centuries couldn't be sharper.


So much of what we enjoy today comes from what was discovered and implemented in the 1800s.

The telephone, radio, automobile, electricity, steam power, running water, indoor plumbing, the use of x rays, mass production, automation, and much more were discovered and/or first used in the 19th century.

Most of the dramatic advancements of the 20th century television, cell phones, fax machines, and so many wonderful electrical appliances are actually refinements or applications of discoveries made in the 19th century. Even the modern computer relies on the 1830s work of Charles Babbage. And while the first airplane flew in 1903, the Wright Brothers began their work in the 1890s.

Some of the genuine 20th-century discoveries have failed to achieve their true potentials. Space travel, for example, has benefited no one but government employees. And atomic energy, which could provide low-cost electricity to the world, has been restrained by politically motivated bureaucrats and environmental extremists.

Penicillin, satellite technology, and transistors are genuine 20th-century breakthroughs that have improved mankind's lot tremendously. But they're notable mostly because they're exceptional in a century that should have built a multitude of miracles on the foundations laid in the 19th century.


American government of the two centuries was as different as night and day.

In the 19th century most Americans had to cope only with local government which was generally small with carefully defined limits. The federal government seemed a million miles away and of little importance.

There was no federal income tax, no Federal Reserve System, no officious Washington bureaucrats overseeing every aspect of your business, no Treasury agents prying into your bank account, no FDA keeping life-saving medicines off the market.

At the end of the 19th century, government at all levels combined took only 8% of the national income. By the end of the 20th century, government consumed 48% of the national income.

The change began at the start of the 20th century. By 1913 we had an income tax, the Federal Reserve System, and numerous regulatory agencies. And every new crisis large or small was an excuse for bigger and bigger government.

War & Peace

Perhaps the biggest change came in American foreign policy.

In the 19th century, America was known as the land of peace and freedom. The Statue of Liberty stood for an idyllic America free of Europe's "storied pomp," a place that millions aspired to reach, where they could be free from government interference and free from perpetual war.

But the 19th century ended with the Spanish-American War the first U.S. war outside our own borders. Like so many wars that followed, it was a war of political ambition, rather than of national defense.

It initiated an aggressive, arrogant U.S. foreign policy that seemed to meddle everywhere provoking such American disasters as World War I, the attack on Pearl Harbor, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the World Trade Center tragedy.

At least a half-million Americans have died because American Presidents use every petty squabble anywhere in the world to justify American intervention.

The Future

So what can we look forward to?

The 21st century has begun as the 20th ended . . . 

  • With politicians piling more and more government on top of us, even as they eulogize the Constitution and call America the "land of the free."

  • With our government searching the world for bar-room brawls to enter, even as our leaders talk of America as a "peace-loving" country.

  • With no faith in the individualism that made the 19th century a period of spectacular progress lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty.

  • With absolute faith that whatever the problem, whatever the cause, whatever the consequences every solution must come from Washington, imposing by force the opinions of people like Teddy Kennedy, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and John McCain.

The only question seems to be whether we will be ruled by arrogant liberals who know how to run our lives or by arrogant conservatives who know how to run the whole world.

I pray that we can find a rebirth of freedom in America and turn away from government, back to the libertarian foundation that provided the good we still enjoy.

I'm not overly hopeful. But I'm not giving up.


Harry Browne is the Director of Public Policy at the American Liberty Foundation. His books are available at www.HBBooks.com, and you can hear his weekly radio show via the Internet.