That one compact statement raises a question I thought we had settled quite some time ago: Are we a people who has a government, or a government that has a people? Pretty much the whole of Western political history is the story of becoming the former and fleeing the latter. And our pursuit of freedom, and flight from government’s proprietary embrace, has traditionally been something on which we have been of one mind.
But is that as true now as it has been in the past? The gentleman’s statement, as well as others made at the national conventions, suggests we ought to explicitly revisit what it is that holds us all together, what it is that has traditionally made us “one people.” Here are a few.
We don’t belong to the government. Government belongs to us. That is the gist of Abraham Lincoln’s formulation that ours is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This is not a merely semantic quibble. We are fond of saying we are a sovereign people in this country. And that is quite true, which is why our Constitution’s preamble explains that it is “we the people” who established a more perfect union. The government did not arise of its own accord, nor did it create its own authority. It does not exist except by our consent, and cannot operate but through the authority we choose to delegate. We could be said to belong to a government only if it was totalitarian and tyrannical – at which point even John Locke would throw a flag and declare a revolution.
Last night, there was a moment at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte that may have alarmed some. The line from a video produced by the host city of Charlotte, declared, “government is the only thing we all belong to.” While some have simply used the line as a reference point for partisan purposes, it needs to be widely discussed. I have to admit I found the words profoundly disturbing. Not because I blame Democrats as a whole but rather whoever penned the script in the video really had no understanding that the line was troubling. I am sure we could say that of too many Americans regardless of political affiliation. In fact, partisans are more apt to embrace this message if their guy or gal is in power. It looks like the Obama political campaign at least felt uncomfortable with the language, as they wasted no time distancing themselves from the quote.
The line omits the whole notion in our Declaration of Independence that, “We our endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” It flips the meaning on its head and posits that our rights and responsibilities flow out of government. The Constitutional message of “We the People” is becoming lost on a large segment of our population. The tentacles of D.C. now vastly stretch across the land acting more in a suffocating fashion rather than a partnering one. Truthfully, the amount of debt Americans now owe and the centralization that is crippling this nation makes the statement in the video accurate not in theory but certainly more so in reality. Many are now serfs in support of profligate spending and the entitlement culture. Sadly, the longer we delay our debt crisis the truth of the line from the convention becomes actualized. An email from Stephen Miller, a spokesmen for U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, noted that the government “awarded a recruitment worker for overcoming the ‘mountain pride’ of people living in rural North Carolina” in order to expand enrollment for food stamps. Our government that is broke is aggressively recruiting more people for handouts.
It’s a sad reduction of the human person, when a worldview creeps in that you find a deeper community and deeper meaning in government.
The disconnect is deeply troubling and needs to be highlighted by deeper discussions and education about our civics. The whole idea of establishing an earthly kingdom is what the Founders rejected. Ownership belongs to the people. The government works for us and receives its direction from us. We are the ones who give the government its consent.
There is a clash of worldviews all around us, and unlike before in American history, they are not competing American worldviews. Language like this seems quite alien to our American experiment and ideals.
People do not love markets,” says Pascal Boyer of the International Cognition & Culture Institute, “there is a lot of evidence for that.” Sadly, Boyer is right and I suspect he’s right about the cause too: People do not like markets because people seem not to understand much about market economics.
We don’t fully understand this antipathy, Boyer notes, because there hasn’t been much research on folk-economics, a study of “what makes people’s economic modules tick.” But I think Boyer has identified one of the key reasons why people tend to prefer government interventions to market-driven solutions:
President Obama’s speech last week in which he asserted to businesspeople, “You didn’t build that,” has been getting some pretty harsh and some pretty hilarious responses.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Business,” I caution against responses that play into a simple individualist/collectivist dichotomy that underlays the president’s message:
We all know at some level that we didn’t get where we are on our own, and that we have an ongoing responsibility and dependence on others for our continuing enjoyment of the goods of human existence. Christians realize too that our independence and freedom is ultimately limited and dependent not simply on other people but on the grace of God.
So to President Obama’s problematic construal of the structure of society (essentially consisting of the individual and the helping hand of government), critics shouldn’t respond simply with the vehement assertion of naked individualism. Instead, we need to articulate a more balanced and accurate perspective, one that properly relates “independence and mutuality, individuality and community.”
One such response from Hunter Baker is here, and is worth checking out.
David Theroux of the Independent Institute concludes his two-part article on “secular theocracy” here (the full article can be read here). In this second part, Theroux observes that “C.S. Lewis understood that natural law applies to all human behavior including government officials.”
Indeed, it is hard to see how the rule of law can function apart from a conception of the natural law. Now as Theroux shows, not just any conception of the natural law will do. It has to be one rooted in the divine lawgiver to those created in his image, with the implications for dignity and basic rights entailed by such.
Otherwise you might have a “natural law” that empowers the strong over the weak on the basis of their ability to dominate, or their intelligence, or their “fitness” to rule. See, for instance, Sam Gregg’s explanation of how Plato and Aristotle justified slavery.
In terms of the blogosphere, I’m sure this polling data from Gallup published two days ago showing that fear of big government dwarfs fear of big business and big labor is ancient history. I only want to offer a few observations.
At one point in our history, I think a lot of Americans or even a majority of Americans looked at the federal government as a vehicle for fairness, progress, and justice. Certainly, the federal government has done quite a few things well over the years. However, as politics has become even more partisan and divisive, and more and more power has been centralized into the Washington beltway, these beliefs have eroded dramatically. In my August commentary “The Folly of More Centralized Power” I noted,
Washington’s inability to balance budgets and restore fiscal responsibility, a problem magnified by a crippled economy, has also bankrupted the public trust. Citizens who take summer vacations to the nation’s capital can easily connect the dots as they observe a Washington Beltway that is booming with jobs and opportunity as tax dollars siphon into the region, even while their own communities are ravaged by job loss and businesses struggle under regulatory burdens.
I also said in the piece,
People feel disconnected from their federal government not only because they are separated geographically, culturally, ideologically, but also because they believe that their access to the political process has been severed. They doubt whether their representatives actually have the best interests of the nation in mind.
Considering all the continued deficit spending, continued government growth, you might expect that some real progress would have been made to start digging us out of this massive hole. But more and more Americans are realizing that the federal government does not have their best interest at heart. It will be interesting to see how the disconnect between the governing and federal bureaucratic class continues to morph as even more and more money and capital is needed to preserve and protect the power structure. A lot of class warfare cards of course will be played and both political parties will do what is best to preserve their power.
When I think about liberals and the war on poverty and mobilizing the government for good, two famous photographs come to mind. I remember when LBJ visited Eastern Kentucky to declare a war on poverty and of course the famous photo of Robert F. Kennedy visiting the impoverished Mississippi Delta. But even liberals or the political left must look out on the political landscape, when well meaning and historic poverty programs were implemented generations ago by well meaning leaders who captured the nation’s conscious, and they must wonder what went wrong? With the political climate the way it is now, even the good intentions are gone and the rhetoric is so shortsighted and rings hollow.
Over at Patheos’ Black, White and Gray blog, where a group of Christian sociologists “share our observations and research and reflect on its meaning for Christian faith and practice,” Margarita A. Mooney writes about “Faith-Based Social Services: An Essential Part of American Civil Society.”
Many of the points she raises echo the principles of effective compassion that have long animated the Acton Institute’s engagement with welfare reform and social service. Be sure to check out the Hope Award program sponsored by WORLD magazine and the American Bible Society, which carries on this legacy of emphasizing effective compassion carried out by private faith-based organizations.
Mooney points out that long before the last few decades of welfare reform and faith-based initiatives at the federal level, faith-based social services were alive and vigorously engaged in charitable activity. As Mooney writes of the 1996 and 2002 federal efforts, “most research shows that these initiatives did little to change the size or focus on faith-based social services. Why? Because most of these faith-based social services existed long before recent federal programs, and because some of what religious organizations do best in social services focuses on deep personal transformations, goals best pursued without government support.”
She quotes Robert Wuthnow on the faith-based social service organization’s vision of the human person. For religious organizations, the human person is more than just a material being with material needs. As Marvin Olasky notes, this older model knew that “true philanthropy must take into account spiritual as well as physical needs.” On this, writes Wuthnow,
…the research that has been conducted among faith-based organizations, although quite sparse, suggests that it is probably their ability to forge encompassing whole-person, personally transforming relationships with clients that accounts for any special success they may have.
Mooney goes on to examine some compelling particular instances. All of this leads to the key question: “Aren’t there ways to allow government support for large faith-based organizations that neither lead to government support for proselytizing nor impede religious organizations from carrying out their missions as they define it?”
On this question, be sure to check out the review essay by David A. Wagner on Lew Daly’s book, God’s Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State, which appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “A Liberal ‘Welfare Conservative’ Boldly Explains Why Nineteenth-Century Popes Are Relevant to Twenty-First-Century Welfare Reform.”
I can always find common ground with the Distributists I meet. We want to replace the government-corporate cronyism that characterizes so much of our current economic system. And we want our culture to raise up young people with the skills, virtues and freedom to accumulate productive capital and invest it in ways that promote human flourishing for themselves and others.
But then there’s the question of centralized political power in the economy. Sometimes when Distributism is described, you get the sense that Distributism and one of its leading early proponents, Hilaire Belloc, have always been committed to a largely grass roots, bottom-up strategy of change. But Belloc himself painted a different picture in An Essay on the Restoration of Property:
We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society…. The effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice. (P.29)
So when I have a conversation with Distributists, the first thing I like to clear up is what they mean by Distributism. Do they merely want people and companies to model best-Distributist practices voluntarily, so as to propagate Distributist ideas and behaviors in a free marketplace of ideas? Do they just want to get the federal government out of the job of picking winners and losers in the economy? Or do they also want to vote in politicians who will arrogate to the federal government expanded powers to seize and redistribute private property and keep it more evenly distributed?
Until those questions are cleared up, the opportunities for muddle and fog are just too great to bother wading in.
Hilaire Belloc, An Essay on the Restoration of Property, (Norfolk, Virginia: IHS Press, 2002).
Acton’s tireless director of research Samuel Gregg has a post up at NRO’s The Corner in reaction to yesterday’s bad poverty numbers (46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line now—2.6 million more than last year). Gregg is ultimately not surprised about the increase, because not only does the American welfare state produce long term dependence on governmental support, but the huge debt incurred by poverty programs tends to slow economic growth.
It is now surely clear that the trillions of dollars expended on welfare programs since the not-so-glorious days of the 1960s have not apparently made much of a dent in significantly changing the ratio of Americans in poverty.
In some instances, America’s welfare apparatus may have prevented some people (especially the elderly) from falling into abject poverty. There is, however, very little evidence that it has helped millions of people out of relative poverty. There is also plenty of data to indicate that many welfare programs have produced intergenerational dependency on the state—a point that even Bill Clinton seemed to have grasped by the mid-1990s.
Gregg then warns against the temptation to double down on government-as-the-answer, arguing that we don’t have the fiscal leeway to experiment as we did in the 1960s.
We need to keep these serious failures of America’s welfare state in mind because these new poverty numbers will almost certainly be used as an argument by some people of good will (as well as those whose motives are far less noble) to resist any reductions in welfare spending, despite America’s far-from-healthy debt and deficit situation. Yet the sheer size of government spending on entitlement programs (by far the biggest item in the federal government’s budget) makes cuts in these areas inescapable if—I repeat, if—our political masters are serious about wanting to balance the government’s books.
Indeed, such cuts are assuming an ever-increasing urgency in light of the studies which continue to appear indicating that crushing levels of public and government debt run the risk of significantly impeding growth. That’s worrying, not least because a slowdown in growth will hurt those in poverty far more than the wealthy. Strong growth rates are one of the most powerful antidotes to poverty – just ask anyone living in mainland China or India. More welfare spending is simply not the answer.
Full post here.
Last week I wrote a commentary titled the “The Folly of More Centralized Power,” making the case against ceding anymore power to Washington and returning back to the fundamental principles of federalism.
Rep. Amash (R-Mich.), a member of the freshmen class in Congress, made that case as well. Amash was asked about his Washington experience so far in an interview and declared,
When I was in the state government, I thought things were dysfunctional there in my opinion. Now I’ve discovered things in Congress are much worse than in state government and the state government runs fairly smoothly by comparison.
In speeches and townhalls, Rep. Amash has stated that the federal government has enumerated powers and it is not supposed to expand beyond that specific scope. I quoted the Virginia Constitution in my commentary. The line I cited was originally from the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. It reads, “That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”