Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Failing "Founding Fathers" 101

In his inaugural speech, President Obama said, amongst other things, "the question is not whether Government is too big or too small, the question is -- does it work?"

From the perspective of the founding fathers, the equivalent rhetoric would be: "The question is not whether we should repose all governmental power in a monarch or design a system of elected representatives and checks and balances, the question is -- will the monarch be wise and benevolent?"

Administrators of government power come and go. Some are wise and benevolent, some are malicious and stupid (and some appear to be both to different segments of the population at the same time). Some are efficient (for example, the Third Reich) and some are inefficient (for example, the US government in the enforcement of prohibition).

The founding fathers would likely see Obama as either naive or maliciously cunning. From their point of view, the most important question was: "Do you want mechanisms in place designed to limit the power and scope of the national government, in order to keep it out of many areas of activity and keep it more responsive to the will of the people in those areas in which it does function, or not?"

Of course, the founding fathers, like everyone else, would like the government to be efficient and effective in those areas in which it legitimately functions, but many of the founding fathers (including Jefferson) would prefer an inefficient government if the scope of that government's activities are not properly bounded.

However, President Obama's question is the only question, if you believe that the scope of government can never be reduced and will always expand until it has crowded out every other competitor for power and economic influence. History suggests that this may be true.

If you examine the effect of the "deregulation" initiative starting with Reagan, you might conclude that the best that can be accomplished in this vein, even with a large public consensus and control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress, is to temporarily stop the further expansion of government. And that is if you are an optimist. Reagan and his heirs, down to Bush 2, presided over a significant expansion of central government power vis-a-vis the States, activities of private religious and charitable institutions, health care, and the mortgage industry, to name a few. During this period, the Government exited no area of activity.

I believe that the combination of:

(i) the elimination of the right of a State to secede,
(ii) the creation of a national central bank,
(iii) the direct election of Senators,
(iv) the creation of the power of the central government to tax income,
(v) the uniform acceptance of the proposition that the constitutional view of the branch of government which is least responsive to the will of the people (Supreme Court) trumps the view of the other two,
(vi) the adoption, by that branch (Supreme Court), of the notion that the Constitution says whatever the Supreme Court says it says, not just what is written and
(vii) the use of that notion to interpret certain clauses in the constitutional list of limited powers of the federal government as being unlimited in potential scope, such as the commerce clause,

have conspired to render the carefully bounded government of the founding fathers effectively unbounded in its scope.

Therefore, in that circumstance, I side with Jefferson and root for a government that tends toward inefficiency and incompetence in the exercise of expanded powers which Constitution, as written, did not grant to it. Given that even a political majority in favor of more limited government has been ineffective in reducing the size of government, government inefficiency may be the only bulwark against perpetual expansion of the central government.