Making Washington inconsequential
by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
August 17, 2011
Texas Governor Rick Perry campaigns at the Iowa State Fair.
First of two parts.
WHEN TEXAS GOVERNOR RICK PERRY announced his campaign for president last weekend in a speech to the RedState Gathering in Charleston, S.C., he saved his best line until almost the very end. "I'll promise you this," he said to exuberant cheers and applause, "I'll work every day to try to make Washington, DC, as inconsequential in your life as I can."
To a Democrat steeped in the big-government tradition of the New Deal and the Great Society, there could hardly be a greater heresy.
For liberals, perhaps the only thing more absurd and disagreeable than the prospect of a Washington with radically reduced influence in American life is a presidential candidate pledging to make that reduction a priority. MSNBC's Chris Matthews, a former Jimmy Carter speechwriter and aide to Tip O'Neill, characterized Perry's applause line is nothing less than a call for anarchy. The governor is saying "not just that the era of big government is over," Matthews hyperbolically told his "Hardball" viewers on Monday, "he's saying the era of government is over. . . . Let's get rid of the government, basically."
But to countless libertarians and free-market conservatives, it is exhilarating to hear a candidate talk this way. And why wouldn't it be? After all, large majorities of Americans consistently say they don't trust the federal government and have little faith in the ability of Washington's immense bureaucracy to solve the nation's problems. In promising to curb Washington's outsize authority, Perry is responding to an alienation from government that is very much a Main Street phenomenon.
It is also a relatively recent phenomenon, one that has grown in proportion with the federal establishment's self-aggrandizement. As Charles Murray has written, the more Washington has tried to do, the less it has done well -- including the relatively few functions it used to perform competently. It is only natural that there should be such widespread frustration with the intrusive, expensive federal behemoth -- all the more so when efficient and attractive private alternatives (such as e-mail instead of snail mail) make clear just how apathetic and ungainly big government tends to be.
Over the past half-century, Washington has insinuated itself into a thousand-and-one decisions that individuals or local governments are more than capable of making for themselves. Which medicines can you buy? How efficient should your lightbulbs be? Can your children's schoolday begin with a prayer? Who qualifies for a mortgage? When do unemployment benefits run out? Can you pay an employee $5 an hour if that's what his labor is worth? Should abortions be restricted? Is health insurance optional? Do artists or farmers or broadcasters require subsidies? Are you in charge of your retirement income?
In Federalist No. 45, James Madison emphasized that under the Constitution, the powers of the federal government "are few and defined," while those left to states and local communities "are numerous and indefinite." For the first 150 or so years of US history that was largely the case. But New Deal/Great Society liberalism has turned the Framers' careful arrangement inside out. Today, there is almost nothing in American life that Washington does not consider itself fit to regulate, control, ban, tax, or mandate.
Part of the Code of Federal Regulations, seen here on the shelves of the Mid-Manhattan Library. There is almost nothing in American life today that Washington does not consider itself authorized to regulate, ban, or mandate.
Former US Senator James Buckley, now a senior judge on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, points to the massive enlargement of Title 42 of the United States Code, which comprises laws dealing with health and public welfare. Between 1960 and 2010, Title 42 metastasized from 403 pages of statutory language to more than 6,300. Title 42, bear in mind, is just one of 50 titles in the US Code.
Has the staggering growth of the federal establishment made America a better, more humane, more optimistic place to live? Obviously it is possible to single out this or that law or regulation or expenditure and show that it has been beneficial. Not even the most ardent libertarian disputes the need for federal governance of inherently national matters -- and the Constitution itself makes clear that Washington has a role to play in guaranteeing civic equality and political liberty.
Yet in crucial ways, the flow of power upward to Washington has impoverished American culture and weakened civic society. A presidential candidate who was serious about making Washington less consequential in the lives of Americans would render his nation a great service. Whether Perry is really that candidate, of course, remains to be seen.
Next: Why local is better than national
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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When 'inconsequential' means 'better'
by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
August 21, 2011
Second of two parts (Read Part 1 )
TO MANY LIBERALS, Rick Perry's audacious pledge to make Washington, DC, as "inconsequential in your life as I can" is tantamount to a pledge to bring back the Dark Ages.
Commenting on Twitter as the Texas governor announced his presidential candidacy last weekend, longtime Washington journalist Howard Kurtz wondered: "Perry wants to make DC 'inconsequential in your life.' Does that include Medicare, Soc Sec, vets' programs, air safety, FDA?" Former Bobby Kennedy aide Jeff Greenfield, calling Perry's words "nothing short of astonishing," ran through a litany of Washington's contributions to American life -- from railroads, interstate highways, and the Hoover dam to land-grant colleges, civil rights, and subsidized mortgages -- and marveled at the depth of the right's "disdain for all things Washington."
Libertarians and conservatives believe what the Founders believed: that that government is best which governs least. "Society in every state is a blessing," wrote Thomas Paine, "but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil."
But it isn't highways or veterans' programs or minority voting rights that conservatives find so objectionable about Washington. When Perry speaks of making the nation's capital "inconsequential," he isn't proposing to dismantle the Hoover Dam. Hard as it may be for liberals to accept, the Republican base isn't motivated by blind loathing of the federal government, or by a nihilistic urge to wipe out the good that Washington has accomplished.
What conservatives believe, rather, is what America's Founders believed: that that government is best which governs least, and that human freedom and dignity are likeliest to thrive not when power is centralized and remote, but when it is diffuse, local, and modest.
"It is not by the consolidation or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected," wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1821. In part that is because central planners and regulators rarely know enough to be sure of the impact their decisions will have on the innumerable individuals, communities, and enterprises affected by them "Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap," Jefferson dryly remarked, "we should soon want bread." The Beltway blunders of our own era -- from the subprime mortgage meltdown to Cash-for-Clunkers to minimum-wage laws that drive up unemployment -- would not have surprised him.
But that isn't the only reason that shrinking Washington and decentralizing power promotes better government. While curbing the federal behemoth is important in its own right, it is indispensable to the moral health of a nation rooted in the conviction that men and women can govern themselves. Our social arrangements tend to work best when they are organized at the lowest possible level, closest to concrete, day-to-day experience. Only as a last resort should we seek to transfer power upward, from individuals and families to city hall, or from city hall to the statehouse, or from the statehouse to Washington, DC. This is the principle of subsidiarity that historically underpinned American federalism.
Once it was commonly understood by Americans that the best way to get things done was usually to do them privately.
In his classic study of democracy in the young United States, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the American propensity to form voluntary organizations for nearly every purpose.
"Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations," an impressed Alexis do Tocqueville wrote in 1835. "They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies . . . but associations of a thousand other kinds -- religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. . . . Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association."
But as government grows larger and more powerful, it crowds out private action. It replaces local, familiar, and organic institutions with remote bureaucratic ones. As state and federal governments swell, taking over functions that used to be left to individuals and voluntary organizations, communities are weakened. Increasingly citizens are taught to rely on government, rather than on themselves or their neighbors. They develop a sense of entitlement, and entitlement in turn fuels selfishness. Other people's needs come to be seen as the government's responsibility. Government gets bigger and bigger -- and citizens get smaller and smaller.
Of course some functions can only be performed at the national level. But Washington does far more than it should, in so many ways treating Americans like children who cannot be trusted to run their own lives. The effect of that infantilization has been an erosion in the virtues without which no free society can thrive: Work, honesty, discipline, gratitude, moderation, thrift, initiative.
The way to undo that erosion? We can start by making Washington more inconsequential.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
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