In raising this question, one risks immediate dismissal as someone hopelessly out of touch with the modern realities of economics and government. Yet the United States managed to navigate the first century and a half of its past – a time of phenomenal growth – without any substantial federal intervention to moderate economic booms and busts. Indeed, when the government did intervene actively, under Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the result was the Great Depression...
Federal intervention rests on the presumption that officials know how to manage the economy and will use this knowledge effectively. This presumption always had a shaky foundation, and we have recently witnessed even more compelling evidence that the government simply does not know what it's doing. The big bailout bill enacted last October; the Federal Reserve's massive, frantic lending for many different purposes; and now the huge stimulus package all look like wild flailing – doing something mainly for the sake of being seen to be doing something – and, of course, enriching politically connected interests in the process.
Our greatest need at present is for the government to go in the opposite direction, to do much less, rather than much more. As recently as the major recession of 1920-21, the government took a hands-off position, and the downturn, though sharp, quickly reversed itself into full recovery. In contrast, Hoover responded to the downturn of 1929 by raising tariffs, propping up wage rates, bailing out farmers, banks, and other businesses, and financing state relief efforts. Roosevelt moved even more vigorously in the same activist direction, and the outcome was a protracted period of depression (and wartime privation) from which complete recovery did not come until 1946.
The US government has shown repeatedly that as an economic manager it is not to be trusted. What we need most are authorities wise enough to follow the dictum, "First, do no harm." The stimulus package will do enormous harm. The huge debt burden it entails, by itself, ought to condemn the measure. America is already drowning in debt. But the measure will also wreak harm in countless other directions by effectively reallocating resources on a grand scale according to political priorities, rather than according to individual preferences and economic rationality. As our history shows, the economy can recover strongly on its own, if only the politicians will stay out of the way.