In his best-selling history of the 20th century, "Modern Times," British historian Paul Johnson describes "a significant turning-point in American history: the first time the Great Republic, the richest nation on earth, came up against the limits of its financial resources." Until the 1960s, he writes in a chapter titled "America's Suicide Attempt," "public finance was run in all essentials on conventional lines"—that is to say, with budgets more or less in balance outside of exceptional circumstances.
"The big change in principle came under Kennedy," Mr. Johnson writes. "In the autumn of 1962 the Administration committed itself to a new and radical principle of creating budgetary deficits even when there was no economic emergency." Removing this constraint on government spending allowed Kennedy to introduce "a new concept of 'big government': the 'problem-eliminator.' Every area of human misery could be classified as a 'problem'; then the Federal government could be armed to 'eliminate' it."
Twenty-eight years after "Modern Times" first appeared, Mr. Johnson is perhaps the most eminent living British historian, and big government as problem-eliminator is back with a vengeance—along with trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. I visited the 82-year-old Mr. Johnson in his West London home this week to ask him whether America has once again set off down the path to self-destruction. Is he worried about America's future?
"Of course I worry about America," he says. "The whole world depends on America ultimately, particularly Britain. And also, I love America—a marvelous country. But in a sense I don't worry about America because I think America has such huge strengths—particularly its freedom of thought and expression—that it's going to survive as a top nation for the foreseeable future. And therefore take care of the world."