Is the Era of Limited Government Over?

Is the era of limited government over? It may be. You can hear the case for greater concentrations of power in the hands of the federal government being advanced even in conservative circles these days. This is an issue of concern for Catholics who take seriously the principle of subsidiarity articulated in the social encyclicals, which warns us of reflexively granting power to the central government.

I refer to recent syndicated columns by conservative commentators David Brooks and George F. Will. Some may object that Brooks and Will are not "true" conservatives. But that is precisely the point. They don't sound like the conservatives of old on the question of limited government.

Brooks writes that it is folly for the GOP to seek "to reconnect with the truths of its Goldwater-Reagan glory days" and to promote itself as the "minimal-government party, the maximal-freedom party, the party of rugged individualism, and states' rights." That message had the power to attract voters when socialism "was still a coherent creed, and many believed the capitalist world was headed toward a Swedish welfare model," and "normal, non-ideological people were right to think their future prospects might be dimmed by a stultifying state."

Brooks continues: "But today, many of those old problems have receded or been addressed. Today the big threats to people's future prospects come from complex, decentralized phenomena: Islamic extremists, failed states, global competition, global warming, nuclear proliferation, a skills-based economy, economic and social segmentation." The bottom line? "Goldwater and Reagan were important leaders, but they're not models for the future," because modern Americans "are less concerned about the threat to their freedom from an overweening state than from the threats posed by these amorphous yet pervasive phenomena."

 George Will agrees. In his Washington Post column he writes, "Today 'strong government conservatism' — 'strong' is not synonymous with 'big' — is the only conservatism palatable to a public that expects government to assuage three of life's largest fears: illness, old age and educational deficits that prevent social mobility." What about "creeping socialism" and the threat to individual freedom that conservatives have warned about since the 1950s? Will is not alarmed: "This belief mistakenly assumes that all government action is merely coercive, hence a subtraction from freedom. But government can act strongly to make itself less controlling and intrusive, enacting laws that offer opportunities and incentives for individuals to become more self-sufficient."

I am coming around to Brooks' and Will's side on this one. I don't fear the growth in federal power the way I used to. I still think the principle of subsidiarity eminently wise, even in strictly human terms. The federal government should take responsibility for a societal problem only when private organizations and state and local government have proven demonstrably incapable of dealing with it. But I am willing to concede the federal government more power than I used to think prudent. The landscape has changed for me.

Why? First of all, let me make clear that I do not think the Washington politicians and federal bureaucrats have become more honest and efficient in the last few decades. It is just that I don't think local and state politicians are any better. I have lived in three different states in the past decade: New York, North Carolina and Connecticut. There is a common denominator. In all three states, local mayors, town managers, school board members, union officials, police officials and town and highway supervisors have been caught with their hands in the till. The Republican governor of Connecticut went to jail on corruption charges about a year after I moved to the state.

But there is another explanation for why I am more willing to give more power to the feds than I used to be. The central reason given by conservatives for keeping power out of the hands of the federal government was that the voters would be able to keep tabs better on local officials, thereby minimizing corruption and maximizing efficiency. I don't see things that way any longer. The much criticized "partisan atmosphere" in Washington and the explosion of the internet blogs and talk shows on radio and television have changed the equation.

In the 1950s and before, Washington deal-makers like Sam Rayburn and Everett Dirksen were distant figures for most Americans. You could see the wisdom of the conservative argument that we should keep as much money and power away from them and the "anonymous, faceless" federal bureaucracy as we could. It is not that way any longer. The members of Congress and their critics are all over the nightly talk shows. I submit that they have a harder time getting away with dishonest practices than the head of your local parks department.

I am not exaggerating: I read the newspapers and try to keep up on local politics, but I know more about what Nancy Pelosi is doing than the mayor of the town where I live in Connecticut. (I am embarrassed to admit this, but as I sit here typing today, I can't even recall the mayor's name.) I bet most Americans would agree that they do not feel they have any more control over municipal and state officials than what goes on in Washington. In every place that I have lived there has been someone who looks like Tip O'Neill or Tony Soprano cutting deals that either break or manipulate the law for private gain. "One hand washes the other, pal." 

At least in Washington, the media scrutiny and intense partisan politics throws the spotlight onto corruption. I am not being naïve. I have no doubt that there are corrupt Washington politicians and bureaucrats who get away with all kinds of graft and dishonest deals. But many get caught; at least as often as local politicians. Everyone can rattle off the names, from both parties: Dan Rostenkowski, Duke Cunningham, Robert Torricelli, Robert Ney and the other Republicans linked to Jack Abramoff.  

Republicans harbor a dislike for Democratic Party operatives like James Carville and the "liberal press." Democrats feel the same for people like Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh. But you have to admit one thing: activists of this sort — even if motivated by partisan politics more than by civic-mindedness — will not let the other side get away with anything shady. Local politicians do not usually face such scrutiny, especially in the one-party towns and cities that seem to be the norm rather than the exception around the country.

I am not quarreling with the principle of subsidiarity. It makes sense to grant power to the central government only when our local or state government cannot handle the responsibility in question more honestly and more efficiently. But it seems to me that we  have reached the point where we can give the central government the power recommended by George Will and David Brooks without crossing that line.

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  • Guest

    God loves you .

    So, the solution to local corruption is general, central tyranny, sir? I think all three of you gents forget the single greatest efficiency of centralized government is centralized corruption. That lesson history has cast in a deep, abiding rock.

    And, at the macro level of nation versus the micro level of municipality, township, country, state, etc., that corruption is worse than the micro can ever be. In our nation, constitutionally, the central powers provide the common defense – therefore, are in best position to abet themselves by and with common offense on the citizenry. They have large-scale investments in ways such as ‘bipartisanship’ in order to solidify their power that the local podunk types cannot even dream of.

    If we would give large powers to the central national government – no longer very ‘federal’, I might add, in order to horde power as they can – we all better arm ourselves with any power each household can muster to protect what those central leaders will protect only at their own convenience, political influence, material advantage and yet greater power – all marks of tyrannical corruption.

    Sorry, bubs, I disagree, heartily.

    Remember, I love you, too

    Reminding that we are all on the same side – His,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell @catholicexchange.com or … yahoo.com)

  • Guest

    Warren,

    James Madison wisely noted two things, in my opinion: first, that if men were angels, we would not need government; second, that ambition checks ambition.

    The average citizen is pretty much sinful and indifferent, but the pols are sinful and very, very ambitious. So Madison and the other framers of the Constitution built separation of powers laterally (legislative, executive, and judicial) as well as vertically (federal, state, and local).

    Corruption is, unfortunately, expected but held in check. Hence the wise recognition of a right to a free press (first amendment) and to bear arms (second amendment). 

    They just didn't address in 1787 – six years after mission accomplished - the two-and-only-two political party system and the big money corruption that has emerged.  I say only two because the electoral college system of winner take all (except Nebraska and Maine) ensures that the power will be kept by only two parties.

    It has taken (and continues to take) much conflict and struggle to keep going, but the USA works not in spite of, but because of, this built-in inefficiency.

    It seems like we would do well to recall that as we demand Iraq and others around the world somehow miraculously check their ambition and become angels.

  • Guest

    The Catholic bishops seem to be in full agreement with Brooks and Will.

    As the bishops lobby Catholics to support various federal legislative proposals that will increase the power of the federal government, I can only ask "Why?". Why are Catholics being told to support increased benefits for illegal immigrants and a variety of federal social programs to feed, clothe, and educate segments of our population. 

    What has happened to cause the Church to believe that it is the responsibility of government to care for the poor, the sick, and the homeless? Why are the bishops supporting an obligation to pay taxes instead of the personal charity taught by Christ?

    I have never seen the love of God in a federal program like I have in the works of St. Vincent de Paul Society volunteers. Yet our bishops seem to prefer godless federal programs to Church programs that would give us all the opportunity to be Christ to our less fortunate brothers and sisters.

    I believe that Christ calls us to serve others with our talents and treasure. But, our bishops seem to hear another call.

  • Guest

    techwreck,

    I certainly don't speak for the bishops, but:

    It seems like your post assumes a false choice between a government program and personal charity.

    Wouldn't our Lord want us to support both?

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    techwreck, though I believe in some social-welfare ‘netting’ I do question how we consistently dump ‘millions’ into it to get ‘thousands’ of benefits to us.

    PTR, of your valid comment that we have the “right to a free press (first amendment) and to bear arms (second amendment)”, would you agree that our ever-more-lateral governance has bred a press less and less a ‘vertical’ entity (and more ‘horizontal’ than ‘lateral’? [smirk!]; and apparently, witness our pundits here) with an acoompanying attack on our second amendment rights?

    Then again, I more and more note how ‘clueless’ our leadership is getting at all levels. Yet, too, these are cultural ‘flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone’.

    As PTR alludes, further, we aren’t exactly ‘just a little less than angels’ of our citizenry – OURSELVES.

    In effect, we can only get what we first demand of our very persons. ([GULP!]) See my topical post “‘APPEAL’, anyone?” in the Politics forum for further meditation.

    Remember, I love you, too

    Reminding that we are all on the same side – His,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell @catholicexchange.com or … yahoo.com)

  • Guest

    As a side comment, i think we should be careful of labeling ourselves as liberal or conservative, because both are ideologies. As Catholics we are called to be CATHOLIC, not liberal, not conservative.  Ideologies are nice but neither one embraces the Truth like Catholicism.  So next time I am asked which ideology I ascribe to I will save I am a 'Preservative' - I know the truth and seek to preserve it! 

  • Guest

    You define deviancy down – if we can't fight political corruption, join in the centralization and magnification of it? 

     

    Why do you ignore Ron Paul who says the founders were right, and is in his 10th term sticking to principles.  Citing George Will as an example of Catholic or political thought is strange.  Agree with angels of light if you will, but then why bother about contraception (The Bishops went along with that according to "Intended Consequences", though they didn't suspect abortion would be made ubiquitous by the supremes).

     

    Ron Paul and Lord Acton (as in the Acton Institute) would agree – Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  At least at the local level you CAN do something about it.  It seems to be too much to ask Catholics to read the catechism or bible, but if you ask them to fix things by doing so, why not hold them responsible for fixing things by running for public office or at least campaigning.

     

    When it becomes too hard to do what is right, in other cases, should Catholics start an apologetics thread explaining why they are compromising and doing wrong?  Have you even bothered investigating the other side of the argument – that we should fight corruption, and after a difficult battle like Washington and Lincoln fought won?  Or just say well, the British are also protectors, so the taxation and writs of assistance and such aren't that bad, or that we can get cheaper cotton if we leave the South alone?

     

    In this, I would prefer the practically atheist Thomas Paine's arguments to yours – they make more sense, common or otherwise and ask for fortitude and the other virtues.

     

    Go with the power of Pride, the sleepy sirens song of Sloth, the subtle envy and greed of those who promise to cheat in your favor and against those you don't like.  Yet those things are also covered in the catechism, and not under virtues.

     

    Lets not fight the good fight, lets just accept an ecumenical surrender?  Can you sell your soul only temporally and not eternally?

     

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    Ron Paul – as ‘pick of litter’ for the Presidency, doesn’t amount to ‘enough’ – he’s a libertarian, which from my reading makes him (and I presume the likes of him) merely a variance on the ‘me-first’ set. And, yes, despite agreed-upon preference for Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ over our pundits-three represented here about this issue.

    Mr. Fitzpatrick – response?

    Remember, I love you, too

    Reminding that we are all on the same side – His,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell @catholicexchange.com or … yahoo.com)

  • Guest

    Ron Paul has always run and voted as a constitutionalist. He prefers to read the Constitution narrowly, as I believe it was intended to be. Libertarians gush over him simply because he's so much closer to their ideal than anyone else elected to national office.

    As for government safety nets, I believe them to be a very poor implementation of Christian charity and almsgiving; see my arguments here and here.

  • Guest

    Why the necessity to severe the connection between Christian life and government? The establishment clause does not require this.

    Since the majority of US citizens are Christians, our constitutional representative republic based on democratic principles ought to complement life in Christ.

  • Guest

    If we want to limit government, we have to be the kind of people that limited government can govern.  We have to be law-abiding, self-controlled, civic-minded, communitarian, charitable, generous, good stewards,  etc. Government grows in direct response to the failures of the people to shoulder the responsiblities of freedom.

  • Guest

    I think that limited government is slipping away – going, going, gone.

    I also think Jim Fitzpatrick has it just about right.

    In our form of democracy, where we are represented by two adversarial political parties that are constantly alert to destroy each other, the only thing we have to fear is the day when the rascals may get together.  A big government so embroiled in two-party warfare so as to be paralyzed, is the next best thing to honest government.

    Whenever the two-party rascals seem to be getting along too well, we should have a group of non-partisan citizens ready to plant slanderous and poisonous stories in the media calculated to drive them back to their normal condition of hating each other.

    There was a time when the choice of governments was between having a monarchy or a democracy.  Democracy has prevailed to the point where we now must choose between big government democracy or small government democracy.  We are close to the point where the choice will soon be between secular government or religious government. 

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    Right you are, danny –

    Bipartisanship is our enemy, with the pols we elect . . .

    With but two parties, we need the ‘federalization’ that more consituencies would provide. How about moving to four Senators per state, and House constituencies limited to a maximum of 70,000 of the population in a district – moving to a House of ten times it current size – some 4400 Reps?

    Ooo! – had to re-edit – with some 4600 Federal pols, would we see bottlenecks of attempts at ‘pork’ for there being less money-per-pol to go around? Would the natural limitations of just how much they could take and spread taxes give them all less room to cater to special interests, and cause them to put greater energy, emphasis, enthusiasm and effort into more ‘common’ legislation? (Am I kidding myself?)

    Remember, I love you, too

    Reminding that we are all on the same side – His,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell @catholicexchange.com or … yahoo.com)

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