Reason Staffers Pick The Best and Worst Things of The Decade

What was bad and good during the Aughts

As the Aughts come to a close, Reason staffers make their pitches for the best and worst things in a decade that many are hoping to forget.

Radley Balko, Senior Editor:

Worst: September 11. For the sheer horrendousness of the attacks and what they represented, but also for the corresponding overreaction from the U.S. government and resulting collateral damage to…well, just about every other area of public policy.

Best: The continued growth, expansion, adaptation, and usefulness of the Internet. From bringing new transparency and accountability to government at all levels all over the world to facilitating instant commerce between people far removed from one another to immensely expanding an infinite range of consumer options to the liberation of information to a litany other benefits, it’s hard to name another development in modern history that has done more to better the human condition.

Brian Doherty, Senior Editor:

Worst: Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This decade saw the U.S. launch and continue, with no end in realistic sight even as ends are promised, two wars of questionable (Afghanistan) or no (Iraq) relevance to the defense of the nation. These actions have murdered tens of thousands and wasted treasure we decidedly don’t have to spare. To the extent that they have not been obvious, universally agreed upon disasters, which they have not, they unfortunately lay the groundwork for more such foolish and criminal uses of the U.S. military in the future.

Best: Global Explosion in The Middle Class. As nearly always in human history, the good news has to be found beyond the worlds of government and public policy. In a decade of grim expansion of state power and resource grabs, and further diminution of constitutional limits on that expansion, all persons of good will (except, I guess, for people who think human wealth equals planetary destruction) should cheer a trend summed up well by Jesse Walker here at Reason Online: an explosion of entrepreneurship and wealth that has brought the middle class to dominate more than half’s the world population by 2006.

Nick Gillespie, Editor in Chief, and

Worst: The Return of Interventionism Whether Domestic, Foreign, or Interplanetary. After a relatively hands-off decade in the 1990s, government at all levels has rebounded as more powerful, repressive, and expensive than ever before. The 9/11 attacks did not need to lead to long-term occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic crisis (largely if not completely created by government policies) did not need to lead to the feds running GM, etc. Yet this impulse is back in full force, and in defiance of the sentiment of the American people, a majority of whom oppose our wars, bailouts, and health care reform.

Best: The End of Mainstream Culture in America. At some point in the past decade, “the mainstream” disappeared from America, with nary a peep. This is partly a technological development (the Internets, among other inventions, allow us to make choices long denied us) but it’s even more an attitudinal thing. Along every dimension of activity, whether we’re talking music, sex, ideology, or food, there are more viable choices than ever before and, even more important, more comfort with the choices we and others make. Politicians will be the last to get the news (see above: The Return of Interventionism), but that’s always the case. This experiential pluralism, a combination of mind-set, wealth, and technology, should be our great export to the world in the 21st century. As it spreads, it will also kick the props out from interventionism, which demands that everyone pay for everyone else’s choices.

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Katherine Mangu-Ward, Senior Editor

Worst: The End of the End of History. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, and we were all supposed to sail off into the sunset on the U.S.S. Liberal Democracy. But then the Russian Bear woke up grumpy, 9/11 went down, Iran decided to it was in the mood for nukes, the word Islamofascism started appearing in newspapers. History resumed.

Best: Cell phones. A good innovation is one that makes life before it seem unimaginably difficult. In the dark days at the end of the 20th century, cell phones had more or less assumed their modern form, but most people still didn’t own one. Ownership levels around the globe struggled to crack double digits, and even in the U.S. fewer than a third of adults owned a cell phone. Today, 87 percent of Americans have a mobile, and that figure rises to 94 percent under the age of 45. More than half the world’s population now carries a phone in their pocket, and many developing nations have skipped over landline infrastructure entirely. At the dawning of a new decade, one question plagues us: How did people ever manage to meet for lunch in the ’90s?

Michael C. Moynihan, Senior Editor

Worst: The Rise of The Blogosphere. While we should celebrate its role in helping balancing power in the media world, the rise of the blogosphere has also convinced a clique of annoying, self-serious, pompous amateurs that, with access to Google and too much free time, they too qualify as experts in military strategy, Iranian/Iraqi politics, Scandinavian social democracy, etc. Why travel to Baghdad? Why learn Farsi or Norwegian? The “Google pundits” (or, in Matt Welch’s phrase, the “omniscient child pundits“) simply free ride off of the reporting of others. Almost makes one sympathetic to those journalists blubbering about the need for government bailouts.

Best: The Rise of The Blogosphere. There are few positive things about that horrid decade that just past, but the rise of blogosphere surely qualifies as one of them. Anything that draws power away from those precious old media types, who for so many years held a monopoly on what and how stories were covered, should be celebrated. Looking back on the media coverage of Iraq, Bush, and the 9/11 attacks, enterprising bloggers of all political stripes helped fact-check the dubious and lazy stories provided by our endangered comrades in big media.

Damon W. Root, Associate Editor:

Worst: Gonzales v. Raich. Not only did the Supreme Court’s notorious 2005 decision in Gonzales v. Raich come down against California’s popularly enacted medical marijuana law, the ruling maintained the Court’s longstanding and disastrously broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause, holding that the intrastate cultivation, sale, and consumption of marijuana somehow still counted as interstate commerce. As Justice Clarence Thomas correctly noted in his dissent, “If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything-and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.”

Best: The Institute for Justice. With so much attention focused on the horror show that we call the federal government, it’s easy to forget about the many ways that state and local governments steal private property, abuse their regulatory authority, and interfere with every American’s right to earn an honest living. That’s where the Institute for Justice comes in. Over the past decade, this public interest law firm has racked up a series of landmark victories against eminent domain abuse, unnecessary occupational licensing, and other restrictions on economic liberty. Thanks to IJ’s efforts, we’re all living in a much freer place.

Peter Suderman, Associate Editor:

Worst: Health Costs Spiral Upwards. After a brief break in the 1990s, health care costs-and in particular, the costs of health insurance premiums-have skyrocketed. As a result, middle-class prosperity has slowed to a crawl, and government has increasingly pushed to “solve” the problem by reducing choice and increasing taxpayer expense and liability. Indeed, many of the decade’s worst legislative ideas were driven by factors-an unsustainable budgetary outlook, increased inequality, and a greater sense of financial instability-that resulted in large part from a legacy of poorly designed programs and regulations in the health care sector.

Best: The Mobile Web. Ten years ago, as the information revolution swept America, most U.S. households with Web access still had to fight AOL busy signals-not to mention little sister Suzy’s demands to talk on the phone with her boyfriend-in order to get online. Now, tens of millions of Americans carry high-speed browsers in their pockets. For a hundred bucks a month, you can be perpetually connected: This time, the revolution is that you can take the information with you.

Jacob Sullum, Senior Editor:

Worst: The War on Terror. The War on Terror joined the War on Drugs as a major excuse for weakening civil liberties, not only with respect to searches (where drug law enforcement has done most of its damage) but also in the area of due process. The president seriously asserted the unilateral, unreviewable authority to grab people off the streets and lock them up indefinitely as “enemy combatants,” based on nothing more than his own assertion that they are linked to terrorism. At its extreme, in memos prepared by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the Bush administration’s vision of the War on Terror involved imposing something like martial law, with the armed forces pursuing terrorism suspects in the United States without regard for the Bill of Rights.

Best: The Supreme Court Stands Up For Rights. The Supreme Court resisted much of Bush’s power grab, declaring his military tribunals illegal and insisting that his detention decisions be subject to independent review (though exactly what sort of review remains unclear). Bucking a trend going back several decades, the Court also rejected some anti-drug policies, including drug interdiction checkpoints, warrantless infrared surveillance of homes, and strip searches of 13-year-old girls suspected of bringing ibuprofen to school. In a further sign that protection of constitutional rights does not inevitably become weaker as time goes by, the Court officially recognized that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to arms, constraining the government’s authority to restrict gun possession.

Jesse Walker, Managing Editor:

Worst: The Permanent Crisis. The best thing about the ’90s was that they fell between the Cold War and the War on Terror, with no grand themes to empower and enable the political class-or, at least, no themes grander than school uniforms and Marilyn Manson records. The result was the most individualist decade since the last inter-crisis period, the 1920s. Then the Aughts gave us a new existential military threat and a new economic crisis, allowing Washington to enter a permanent stampede mode.

Best: Mash-ups. There was a time when you had rely on hip friends with collections of samizdat cassettes if you wanted to hear a weird, funny remix of, say, Ronald Reagan talking about a can of meat. Now you can’t go a day without YouTube overflowing with new homebrewed cut-ups of anything notable a politician, newscaster, or other celebrity did on camera in the last 24 hours. As the government keeps accruing power, we can at least enjoy the consolation prize of holding new tools for mocking the bastards as they screw us.

Matt Welch, Editor in Chief, Reason magazine:

Worst: The Loss of Confidence in The West. The West, and America in particular, lost its confidence. Faced with unprecedented waves of freedom and prosperity in the ’90s, the Battle of Seattle left went bonkers on conspiratorial, howlingly pessimistic anti-capitalism. Faced with an unprecedented attack on U.S. soil, the National Security center-right and a thick chunk of liberal hawks lost faith in the openness and elevated values that made America both a beacon and a target (as well as the world’s most powerful country) in the first place. And faced with the first truly significant economic crisis since 1978-82, both sides of our noxious “permanent governing majority” joined hands to double down on nearly every failed government policy that got us here in the first place, while placing blame at nearly every opportunity on private enterprise. In 10 short years, we went from leading the cause of democratic capitalism, by both example and rhetoric, to getting lectured about our statist economic policies by western Europeans.

Best: The Developing World Getting Richer. China, and most of the developing world, kept getting richer, often dramatically so. There is plenty of dynamism in the world, still; just less and less of the stuff in the Land of the Free.