Debate

  • Limited Government

    One of the six values that form ISI’s core beliefs is a limited government. The rightful functions of government are to guarantee individual liberty, private property, internal order, the provision of national defense, and the administration of justice. When the state exceeds this proper role, it accumulates power and becomes a threat to personal liberty.

    Debates and discussions regarding the scope and role of government are one of the hallmarks of today“s political discourse. But the questions still remain: What is government’s proper role? What are its limits?

    The views and opinions expressed in Debate content do not necessarily represent those of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

    May 13, 2011
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    • Bringing It All Back Home

      written by

      Republican members of Congress—nigh lockstep supporters of the Wall Street bailout, the Iraq War, and the Patriot Act when their party controlled the executive branch—profess to have rediscovered the Constitution during the first two years of the Age of Obama. Those of us who were not swept away by the Francophobia of 2003 might say we are experiencing déjà vu. For the first Clinton administration provoked a similar fit of GOP “constitutionalism,” which peaked—or reached its nadir—when, in 1996, future Viagra spokesman and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole took to carrying in his (shirt!) pocket a copy of the Tenth Amendment, that paper guarantor of the rights of the states. (No one ever bothered to ask Senator Dole what he thought of his wife’s leadership, as secretary of transportation under Ronald Reagan, in forcing the fifty states to adopt a uniform minimum drinking age of twenty-one.)

      I am a notoriously poor forecaster—every year I pick the Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl—but I can with unshakeable confidence predict that Republican invocations of constitutional limits on the powers of the national government will cease as soon as another Republican wins the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

      (Allow me to raise, and then drop, a possible problem with these “constitutionalists” that is far more fundamental, even intractable, than my somewhat hackneyed charge of hypocrisy. That is, what if the Anti-Federalists, those often prescient opponents of the new Constitution in 1787–88, were correct in asserting that the Constitution would lead, inexorably, to a centralized national government that would levy extortionate taxes, wage shameful wars, and usurp the powers of state and local governments? Was disregarding George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Luther Martin, and scrapping the Articles of Confederation, a fatal mistake?)

      Let us, for the sake of this short essay, assume the possibility of a limited government that stays within constitutional bounds. A decent respect for Senator Dole’s Tenth Amendment would deprive the federal government of its current role in education, for instance, as well as the provision of health care. But no single act would have a more profound and far-reaching effect than reorienting U.S. foreign policy along the lines of the advice given in George Washington’s Farewell Address: to reject “foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues”(goodbye, NATO); to avoid “excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another” (goodbye, Middle East); and to beware “those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty”(goodbye, military-industrial complex).

      With a handful of noble exceptions—I think of Representatives Ron Paul (TX), John Duncan Jr. (TN), and Walter Jones (NC)—Republicans have placed the $700 billion “defense”budget off-limits. I put defense within quotes because relatively little of this money is spent on the defense of the North American continent. In fact, an artless Republican congressman once described the abominable Department of Homeland Security as a “Defense Department for the United States”—which makes one wonder what the job of the actual Defense Department might be.

      The baneful ramifications of an overgrown military establishment and promiscuous intervention in faraway lands go well beyond the budgetary. Edwin Starr once asked: “War—what is it good for?” And the answers should please no one who values liberty, small-scale community, republican governance, and a culture of life. War centralizes culture, displaces young adults, and tramples domestic liberties. (In time of war “the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me,” John J. McCloy, FDR’s designated jailer of Japanese-Americans, once observed.)

      In my book Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism (2008), I included what some reviewers thought to be an anomalous chapter detailing, in typically discursive form, the many pernicious by-products of the warfare state and that military-industrial complex against which President Eisenhower so eloquently and ineffectively warned. I didn’t cite Tang, but I did write about government-sponsored day care (the “Total Army Family,”in Pentagon 1984-speak), the Interstate Highway System, school consolidation, Daylight Saving Time, and even the wretched metric system.

      Rootlessness, divorce, children being raised by strangers: the military has contributed more than its share to social maladies that once troubled conservatives—and that, in ways direct and indirect, nurture the growth of the central state. The return of American soldiers to their homes and their families would be the most pro-family policy a family-values conservative could propose—and it would please fiscal conservatives too, as deep and healthy cuts in the war budget would return American tax dollars to those who earned them.

      John Randolph, the Virginia statesman and subject of Russell Kirk’s magnificent biography, explained, “The Government of the United States was not calculated to wage offensive foreign war—it was instituted for the common defence and general welfare; and whosoever should embark it in a war of offence, would put it to a test which it was by no means calculated to endure.” Isn’t it time we started tending to our own backyards? We might begin to restore the health of our families, our local communities, our economy, and our Constitution—things worth conserving.

      Bill Kauffman is the author of nine books, two of which were published by ISI Books: Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists and Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin.

      May 13, 2011

    • Toward a Truly Limited Government

      written by

      The great challenge of democracy, as the American Founders understood it, was to restrict and structure government to secure the rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence—preventing tyranny while preserving liberty. The solution was to create a strong, energetic government of limited authority. Its powers were enumerated in a written constitution, separated into departments and functions, and further divided between national and state governments in a system of federalism. The result was a framework of decentralized constitutionalism and a vast sphere of freedom, leaving ample room for republican self-government.

      The Founders understood that size indeed matters, but even more important is the purpose and operational structure of government. Small government does not mean the same thing as limited government. The Founders understood this well; it is a constant theme in their writings, emphasized especially in The Federalist. They went to great lengths to moderate democracy and limit government not merely by parchment barriers but also through structural mechanisms and “auxiliary precautions” such as the separation of powers and checks and balances.

      And yet here we are today, covered by a vast web of rules and regulations, endless policies and programs, all emanating from a massive central government that dominates virtually every area of American life. Its authority is all but unquestioned, seemingly restricted only by expediency and the occasional budget constraint.

      What happened?

      We can trace the concept of the modern state back to the theories of Thomas Hobbes, who wanted an all-powerful “Leviathan” that would impose a new order, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who favored an absolute state to achieve absolute equality. Alexis de Tocqueville warned us of a new form of despotism in such a centralized, egalitarian state: it might not tyrannize, but it would enervate and extinguish liberty by reducing self-governing people to “nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

      The Americanized version of the modern state was born in the early twentieth century. American “progressives,” under the influence of German thinkers, decided that advances in science and history had opened the possibility of a new, more efficient form of democratic government, which they called the “administrative state.” For this to be possible, however, government could not be restricted to securing a few natural rights or exercising certain limited powers. Instead, government must become dynamic, constantly changing and growing to pursue the ceaseless objective of progress.

      Over the course of the twentieth century, our national government (followed quickly by state governments) became bloated, overextended, and unrestrained, oblivious of its core functions, operating far beyond its means and outside its proper constitutional bounds. In assuming more and more tasks in more and more areas outside of its responsibilities, modern government has caused great damage. By feeding an entitlement mentality and dependency rather than promoting self-reliance and independence, administrative government encourages a character incompatible with republicanism. The extended reach of the state—fueled by its imperative to impose moral neutrality on the public square—continues to push traditional social institutions into the shadows of public life, undermining respect for institutions meant to strengthen the fabric of America’s culture and civil society.

      The size of government must be vastly reduced. But the modern form of government—in which everything is socialized under the unlimited scope of the administrative state—is the real problem.

      True self-government cannot be revived without a decided reversal of administrative centralization in the United States. This requires that we seriously revisit the classic argument of federalism, but not by merely shifting bureaucratic authority to states that are themselves bureaucratic and increasingly dependent on federal largesse. What we need is a significant decentralization of power, and of vast areas of policymaking, moving from the federal government to states, local communities, neighborhoods, families, and individual citizens. Public welfare, education, and health care—all issues that in recent decades have become concerns of the federal government, but are better dealt with at the state and local levels of government (not to mention by families, community organizations, religious congregations, or private markets)—are ripe for this kind of reform. We cannot claim to govern ourselves if every question, problem, and aspect of our lives demands a new government program.

      At the same time, our experiment in self-government cannot survive if we become a nation of disconnected, autonomous individuals. The American system of decentralized governance, which allows political bodies closest to the people to decide a multitude of issues within their own purview, is an important feature of our constitutional structure. It is through our relationships with neighbors, friends, and fellow countrymen—in local communities, churches, schools, and private organizations, in workplaces and through economic exchange—that we acquire the habits, practices, and spirit of Americans, strengthening our virtues, work ethic, and mutual responsibilities.

      Over the next months and years, and the next few elections, important questions about the form of modern government will be decided, perhaps definitively, one way or the other. Either the party of the modern state will unify its control and solidify its centralized model of government, or a new coalition of its opponents—unified by a healthy contempt for bureaucratic rule and a determination to reassert popular consent—will gain control of the political institutions of government and begin the difficult task of restoring real limits on government. In this choice, all rests on the continuing capacity and resolve of the American people to govern themselves.

      Matthew Spalding is Vice President of American Studies and Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of We Still Hold These Truths, available from ISI Books.

      May 13, 2011