Respect for anything associated with government that is non-military is virtually nonexistent. Aside from loving their own benefits, opinion polls affirm that Americans’ respect for politicians and government is at all-time lows. In a country that once prided itself on American spirit and individuality, it is not difficult to understand why. Two factors are important:
- “Government-gone-wild,” characterized by unprecedented bailouts, stimuli and quantitative easings, is a primary reason. In just two years, 3 Trillion dollars was added to the federal debt. Congress, despite statutory mandate, refused to prepare a budget this year. Walter Williams observed:
The nation’s founders would be horrified by today’s congressional spending that consumes 25 percent of our GDP. Contrast that to the years 1787 to the 1920s when federal government spending never exceeded 4 percent of our GDP except in wartime. Today, federal, state and local government consumes 43 percent of what Americans produce each year.
- Government has trampled on areas once considered personal and sacrosanct. ObamaCare is the poster child for intrusions and arrogance. Despite overwhelming opposition, this unworkable monstrosity was passed. Now the TSA imposes invasive screening methods despite public concern regarding health, constitutional and effectiveness. Government is hopelessly out-of-touch and is trending authoritarian. It is corrupt and inept.
Ordinary people see a ruling class thriving while they suffer. Large corporations get preferred treatment while the little guy is supposed to play by the rules and bail out mistakes he did not make. Politicians ask everyone but themselves and their cronies to “sacrifice.” Government is no longer trusted or believed. No government can survive when it loses the confidence of the people. We have nearly reached this dangerous point. To understand how we got here, it is useful to look at government and the dilemma it presents.
The Dilemma of Government
The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.
That statement by Madison is the essence of the problem of government. Power is easy to convey but difficult to contain or take back. The Founding Fathers recognized government as a necessary and a positive force for freedom. However, they knew that if not contained, it would become the mortal enemy of liberty. In this schizophrenic view, government could be very good or very bad. It was akin to a Dr. Jekyll, capable of providing great service to society. Yet, contained within the good was the evil Mr. Hyde who was capable of destroying society. This concern was evident:
- “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” George Washington
- “Fear is the foundation of most government.” John Adams
- “I own that I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.” Thomas Jefferson
- “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.” James Madison
To achieve the good of government while protecting against its dangers, the Founders carefully restricted its power and sphere of influence. They established an agent-principal relationship with government as the agent, taking orders from the principal, the people. This relationship was codified in the US Constitution which strictly limited the duties and powers of government. In Joseph Sobran’s terminology, the Constitution was to have been “an anti-trust act for government.” So long as this document could hold, Mr. Hyde could be contained. The Founders were not naïve and knew that the concentration of power, even though limited, would not prevent its abuse. While they believed the Constitution necessary, they hardly thought it sufficient to guarantee a permanent arrangement:
- “… I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it … “ Benjamin Franklin
- “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Thomas Jefferson
- “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Thomas Jefferson
Our Current Situation
Almost immediately the governing class began to push the boundaries imposed by the Constitution. After more than 200 years of assault, the controlling document is little more than a historical artifact. The political class reveres The Constitution so long as it does not get in their way. As the Constitutional constraints were removed, the Mr. Hyde aspect of government emerged. Today Dr. Jekyll has all but left Washington and Mr. Hyde vents in full fury.
The agent-principal roles have been nearly reversed. The people have in too many instances been reduced to agents taking orders from their government. The government expects the people to support their whims. Today, Abraham Lincoln’s well-turned phrase describing government as “of the people, by the people and for the people” sounds like nothing more than obvious and cruel propaganda.
For much of our history Americans seemed unaware how government was continually gaining power at their expense. Like the proverbial frog in the heating pot, freedom was ebbing away so slowly that it was unnoticed. The cumulative effects, coupled with recent unprecedented government arrogance and overreach, awakened the frog. Americans are now concerned and angry.
Unfortunately the awakening occurs too late to be remedied via conventional means. The election process, our means of political resolution, only works when there is meaningful choice. As described by Angelo Codevilla, Republicans and Democrats have been corrupted by power. They both consider themselves the principals to be served by their agents, the people.
Philosophically, there is some difference between the two parties, but the difference is at the margins. Primarily it reflects in the rates at which they are willing to usurp additional power. The humorous wisdom of Will Rogers describes the current non-humorous situation:
The more you observe politics, the more you’ve got to admit that each party is worse than the other.
Thomas Jefferson described two types of environments:
When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.
Jefferson adamantly favored the latter. Our current condition resembles the former. A fundamental conflict has finally bubbled to the surface. The conflict is that people finally realize that government has become something never intended. Government has grown beyond reasonable limits. Its size and power are squashing the personal freedoms that made the country what it is. It intrudes into every aspect of life. It has truly become Mr. Hyde. We have reached the state described by Frederic Bastiat:
When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.
The public now recognizes the problem and wants to solve it.
Is There a Solution?
The last two elections were votes to change course. In each, the sitting majority was overwhelmingly rejected. Both were “throw-the-bums-out” elections. The first resulted in replacing one set of bums with another. That was not the change sought by the public. The results of the second remain to be seen, but I am not optimistic, given the power in the hands of the existing leadership. The public wants to take back control of their government. It wants to downsize and declaw Leviathan. It wants to make government its agent, not its master. It still believes the words of Abraham Lincoln:
We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.
Politicians in Washington seem too inbred to understand that a sea change is occurring amongst the people. Neither political party understands or likely will accept what the public wants. As Frank Chodorov observed:
The State acquires power… and because of its insatiable lust for power it is incapable of giving up any of it. The State never abdicates.
When both political parties are philosophically opposed to what people want, changing horses does no good. Elections become merely a choice between the lesser of two evils. Regardless of the outcome, you are guaranteed an evil. Camille Paglia framed our current situation thusly:
Are we like late Rome, infatuated with past glories, ruled by a complacent, greedy elite, and hopelessly powerless to respond to changing conditions?
Her question, while relevant to what kind of future might be in store, begs the question of whether there is a solution to a government unresponsive to its citizens. That question is easier to answer and was addressed by Samuel Johnson more than 200 years ago:
No government power can be abused long. Mankind will not bear it. There is a remedy in human nature against tyranny, that will keep us safe under every form of government.
History shows Johnson was correct for both totalitarian as well as democratic governments. The issue is what type of solution(s) will evolve and how long it (they) might take. Solutions within the law and Constitution are still possible and preferable, but time is getting short. Three forces could initiate or work together to produce necessary change:
- Washington – No solution appears to be forthcoming. It is unlikely one will be initiated here, although they will participate in change once they recognize how their hold on power is threatened.
- The Ballot Box – Neither political party seems willing to change. The Tea Party is a movement toward change. Both established parties are doing their best to discredit their effort. The movement will provide options at the ballot box and its success will have some influence on the major parties. Resistance by the established parties, however, does reinforce point 1 — change will not originate in Washington.
- The States – States have leverage. The massive realignment of state legislatures toward Republicans might provide an impetus for them to put the Federal Government back into its box. As their fiscal problems worsen, it is likely that a meaningful movement begins here.
The interesting times in which we live are going to become even more so. This post originally appeared on American Thinker