Commentary

Our Next Stop: Greece — or Rome

If there’s one theme dominating our midterm elections this year, it’s outrage over runaway government — government running our lives, and trampling morality in the process. CNBC financial reporter Rick Santelli, who gave the Tea Party its name, captured it perfectly last year in his “rant heard ‘round the world” — “The government is promoting bad behavior.” With the bailouts mounting, he touched a nerve when he asked how many people wanted to pay their neighbor’s mortgage when they were struggling to pay their own.

The question hit home (literally) as more and more Americans were coming to see government’s hand in the economic mess around them. Their neighbor was in trouble because Congress’s irresponsible Community Reinvestment Act, the Fed’s prolonged easy money policy, and the shenanigans of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had put people in homes they couldn’t afford, leading to rising foreclosures, plummeting housing values, and job losses that have hit us all in countless ways.

It’s not simply economics. It’s government encouraging irresponsible behavior, and responsible people paying the price.

But are there any people in public life today behaving more irresponsibly than so many in Congress? They don’t even read the bills they vote for? Look how Obamacare was passed. The “Louisiana Purchase.” The “Cornhusker Kickback.” Does anyone know what’s in that law, even though it affects our very lives? We don’t, and we won’t know until the regulations get written. But here too, Congress delegated the power to write that law to unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats. Yet the Constitution’s very first sentence states plainly that “[a]ll legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress.”

[A]re there any people in public life today behaving more irresponsibly than so many in Congress?”

And so we come to what really is agitating the voters this year, as seen on so many homemade Tea Party signs: The Constitution today is all but irrelevant. In their hearts, Americans know that it was written to limit government and protect our liberty — that’s what the Revolution was about, after all. But time and again they see unlimited government running their lives — and irresponsibly at that.

Government is planning our retirement and health care, for example. Yet the three big “entitlement” programs — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — are going broke as Congress, rather than deal with that, creates an even larger and even more unfunded entitlement scheme, Obamacare. And states too have mortgaged themselves as far as the eye can see to give public sector employees health and retirement benefits that far exceed anything available to the private sector workers whose taxes have to pay for them.

Indeed, taxes and regulations today have so hammered the private sector that states like California appear to be in a demographic death spiral, with taxpayers fleeing while tax-takers flow in. Just look at the latest census estimates: for the first time in over a century, California will gain no new House seats.

Yet the Constitution gives only limited powers to the federal government, and it checks what states can do as well by recognizing the inherent right of individuals to plan and live their own lives, free from government interference — indeed, from government’s planning our lives for us.

So how did we go from the Constitution’s vision of liberty through limited government to the Leviathan we’ve got today? That’s a long story, but at its core, it’s really quite simple. The watershed was the Progressive Era, in the early decades of the 20th century, when the forebears of today’s liberals rejected the founders’ view of liberty. Their idea was to empower government bureaucrats, elites trained at the best schools, to plan everything from the economy to our living arrangements — even to our population, as in the infamous Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, which upheld a Virginia statute that authorized the sterilization of people thought to be of insufficient intelligence, all part of the eugenics movement aimed at improving the human race.

To some extent the court resisted the Progressives, citing the Constitution, but with the New Deal, especially after President Franklin Roosevelt’s notorious court-packing threat in 1937, the court caved, and the Constitution was turned on its head. The floodgates were thus opened for the modern welfare state, the unsustainable foundations of which are now so obvious that they can no longer be ignored.

And so, having abandoned individual responsibility, succumbing instead to the siren song of government responsibility, we’re now at another watershed. Either we grasp the nettle and restore our founding principles — gradually, as we must — or we go the way of Greece, or France, or, much earlier, Rome.

Roger Pilon is vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute and director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies.