Truth or Inconsequences — 22 August 2011

Last week, I wrote about my view that the vast increase of government support programs over the last few decades has resulted in a deadened sense of social responsibility – if the government is taking care of folks, then folks don’t need to take care of themselves or their neighbors.  I contended that this has led to such pathological behaviors as the gleeful anarchy of the London riots.

It turns out there’s a journalist who has taken up a similar theme, from a different angle.  Jeff Jacoby, of the Boston Globe, has written a pair of columns that describe the stunting of American civic culture as a result of our enormous central government.  His thesis is little different from mine – as the central authority sucks up power and money, it starves political efforts at the more local level, which ultimately undermines the public’s sense of engagement and involvement.

The debate was ignited by GOP Presidential candidate Rick Perry’s promise that, “I’ll work every day to try to make Washington, DC, as inconsequential in your life as I can.’’  Not surprisingly, media liberals went hysterical and projected that Perry proposed to do away with government altogether.  It’s like, for them, one is either a virgin or a harlot – either you love government without limits or you’re an anarchist.

That’s hard to square with another long-held tenet of conservative values, that of a strong military and a robust foreign policy.  One doesn’t do that with militias and minutemen. But never mind.  If it makes a good attack line it doesn’t have to have logic.

More to the point, the liberal counterattack changes the subject.  The important thing, and Jacoby’s point, is that we have allowed Washington to arrogate so much power to itself that it has insinuated itself into little corners of our lives, such as the design and wattage of our light bulbs, that is far more intrusive than the Founding Fathers ever intended.

James Madison, in the Federalist Paper #45, declared, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”  That is how it was intended to be; the Founders firmly believed that the best governance occurs close to the people, and that the more removed decisions become the poorer those decisions are.  They are less attuned to local needs; they are less responsive to constituents; they are necessarily blunt-instrument actions and therefore more inappropriate to individual circumstances.

And yet, that is what we have done with our governing structure over the last century.  Remember that income tax was not a constitutional power until 1913.  Today we have a tax code that runs to 80,000 pages of rules and exceptions.  The latest power grab, of course, is Obamacare, which purports to make it a Federal issue if anyone chooses not to do something that heretofore was a completely private decision.  As the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found, that is a stretch too far even for the highly malleable Commerce Clause.  But the intent was there.

Liberals have a naive faith in a benevolent government.  President Obama, on his recent bus tour of the midwest displayed this belief: when confronted by an Illinois farmer who said,  “We would prefer to start our day in a tractor cab or combine cab rather than filling out forms and permits to do what we’d like to do,” his advice was to call the USDA and ascertain the status of the rules.  The web site Politico helpfully tried to do just that, and after a couple of hours of runarounds was told, effectively, “not our department.”

This is what everyday folks see in their government – distant, unresponsive, and so grossly complicated that even its own denizens can’t navigate among the various departments, sub-departments, bureaus, agencies and affiliated organizations that all cover the same or related fields.  It can’t possibly be efficient or effective, and everybody knows it costs trillions.

So Rick Perry has struck a nerve, and it has galvanized many on the right precisely because it brings into sharp relief the difference between progressives and conservatives.  Conservatives favor small government because we believe it is most effective and more in tune with the original design of the Constitution.  We believe that keeping as many decisions as possible at the local level not only improves the quality of the governance but contributes to an active citizenry, and therefore a healthy polity.

Jacoby notes that Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed by the myriad associations that Americans in the mid-19th Century formed among themselves for any and all purposes.  This, to him, was the heart of American democracy.  Today, as Robert Putnam wrote in Bowling Alone, this quintessential American social mechanism has completely broken down – people don’t even join bowling leagues any more, and groups like that used to define our local communities.  Putnam blames this on many factors, particularly on the advent of television.  I believe a big part of the blame lies with the fact that the leviathan in Washington DC has sucked up the political vitality of our communities.

I think liberals tend to favor big government because they are utopians: they want to make the world a better place for many people, and only a powerful central authority has the ability to do that.  What they don’t appreciate is that taking from one party to improve the circumstances of another inevitably and necessarily constrains the freedom of both parties, and that as freedom withers, so does the energy, opportunity, and economic potential of the country.

Liberals like to think of conservatives who favor traditional Constitutional limits as quaint throwbacks – it was good enough in the days when everybody drove buggies, but our modern times require a more vigorous federal authority.  Perhaps our modern times require a bit of modesty about the purposes – and consequences – of rampant central government.

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