G. K. Chesterton once observed there’s no use talking about reform without reference to form. This wise adage helps put the California recall election in perspective.
The State's enormous budget deficit is driving much of the antipathy toward Gray Davis. But without major reform of state government, a new governor could hardly make a dent in Sacramento. Even if he cuts the budget by $1 billion, $5 billion, or even $10 billion, what difference does it make with a $38 billion shortfall? What's needed is not a tune-up but an overhaul.
But what sort of change is needed? This is where Chesterton's dictum comes in we must think about reform by first talking about form. What is government for? What should its purposes be? Perhaps most importantly, what are its limits?
A few years back, I attended a lecture entitled “How Government Works,” by state Senator Tom McClintock, a leading candidate to replace Gray Davis if he's recalled. His answers then are relevant now.
“What is the purpose of government?'' McClintock asked. “The answer used to be obvious to protect our liberties, our inalienable rights. That's what the Declaration was all about it says, “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. . .”
According to the Declaration, our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness come from God, not government. Governments are instituted only to protect these rights.
“But when you reflect upon all the things government now does to subvert those rights,” he continued, “you realize how far we have pushed our country away from its foundation of the Declaration of Independence.”
McClintock said it is government's nature to grow beyond its established bounds, abusing its citizens' rights by imposing more laws, regulations, and taxes until it reaches a terminal stage. This crisis is resolved in one of three ways: either the government collapses of its own weight, is overturned by revolution, or is saved through a sudden, dramatic downsizing, as in the American founding. California has reached that point.
“I'm convinced the wheel has come full circle,” McClintock observed. Foreseeing the current crisis, he said, “Our generation's responsibility is to see this country through a successful dramatic downsizing.”
Further, McClintock noted that a civilization's collapse is always preceded by a dramatic decline in moral behavior. Why? “As governments grow beyond their bounds, they become jealous of religious practice because a portion of the population is loyal to an authority higher than the state. This becomes a challenge and a threat when trying to consolidate all authority in the state. That's why when a government reaches the terminal stage, it becomes increasingly intolerant of religious practice.” Sound familiar?
McClintock was reminded how unique the American founding was in establishing a society based on democratic self-government, with religious freedom at its foundation. Its continued health relies on the populace remaining a religious people.
“Religious liberty makes possible our civil liberties, not the other way around. If you are going to have limited self-government, it must be predicated on the ability of individuals to govern themselves. If you have a population that cannot control itself, it cannot govern itself.”
The country is now fighting the same battle that has been raging for centuries, McClintock concluded. The forces of liberty and the forces of tyranny are locked in combat, just as in the Founders' day. “What are we asked to do today? We must persevere with the same determination they did to take back the liberties that have been taken from us.”
Like George Washington, McClintock understands “government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force,” and unless mastered, becomes a fearful master. More than simply restating the obvious, the Republican provided a profound analysis of where our country has gone wrong. In doing so, he pointed out not only how we became lost, but offered a roadmap for the way back.
Every recall election candidate agrees government reform is needed. But only one understands that meaningful reform begins by talking about form and he has been talking about it for years. (Hint: His name ain't Arnold.) While others offer more of the same poison that is slowly killing us, Tom McClintock prescribes the antidote.
© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange
James Bemis is an editorial board member and columnist for California Political Review.