The latest federal government shutdown and debt default battles may be over for the moment, but the basic underlying issue of out-of-control deficits and debt remains unaddressed. The media have treated us instead to tales of suffering federal workers and closed national parks, thinking perhaps that we could handle nothing deeper.
Occasionally, however, a slightly more probing piece has appeared over this stretch, as with Tuesday’s New York Times “Opinionator” column by Michael P. Lynch, “Democracy After the Shutdown.” Alarmed by Forbes Opinions editor John Tamny’s piece a fortnight earlier, which at that stage urged Republicans to take credit for the shutdown, Lynch saw in Tamny’s article “the recent emergence of a political philosophy that threatens to unravel our joint commitment to a common democratic enterprise.” Actually, the “political philosophy” Tamny invoked is hardly recent. The anti-federalists articulated it thoroughly. And the federalists, writing also in New York’s newspapers of the day, were only marginally more committed to “a common democratic enterprise.”
We’re in this deficit and debt mess today because we’ve essentially abandoned the idea of constitutionally limited government.
But for Lynch, Tamny’s piece brought things to a head, prompting him to write that we are living “in a dangerous political moment.” What’s the point of the Republican Party, Tamny mischievously asked, “if it’s not regularly shutting down the federal government?” As the “‘responsible stewards of the people’s money,’ shutdown should be a part of the GOP’s readily unsheathed arsenal of weapons meant to always be shrinking the size and scope of our economy-asphyxiating federal government.”
That’s the kind of talk that drives liberals like Lynch and his Times audience up a wall, of course, because it’s not just “’crazy talk’ and unserious bluster,” he writes, but represents “views now being entertained on the radical right, not just in the dark corners of the Internet, but in the sunlight of mainstream forums.” He calls, therefore, for confronting it “by asking a simple question: What are the consequences of this strategy — one that urges us to explicitly pull out of a shared contract of governance?”
Not surprisingly, that “shared contract of governance” carries a lot of weight thereafter in Lynch’s argument — alas, more than it can bear. Thus, the first of his two main concerns is for “the social contract itself,” which “develops out of the idea that if we act as a body, and put aside some of our personal interests in the interests of that body, we are all better off.” That’s just vague enough to enable Lynch to speak then of “joint commitments” that, although not always expressly agreed to, are nonetheless “so taken for granted” that they amount to a kind of “common knowledge” that “we are all in this together.” (Where have we heard that before?) Without that common knowledge, however, “we won’t regard ourselves as being in this all together,” he continues, for “once I think that not everyone is committed, then I may stop feeling committed as well.” And that’s just the trouble with those anti-social tea party Republicans: They’re undermining our collective life.
But to get the full flavor of this view, here’s Lynch at length:
It is not the shutdown itself that threatens the unraveling of our being jointly committed in this way. The government has shut down before and survived. Nor is the breakdown in normal legislative negotiations — because one side has, as it were, left the dance floor. It has to do with the fact that it is no longer common knowledge among the citizens of this country — left, right and center — that most everyone is willing to act together as a single political society. The real damage is caused by the idea that our current democratic form of government should be shuttered. For that raises the question of whether it should be around at all. And once people begin to wonder whether the government is something that other citizens are taking seriously — even if they aren’t — the idea that we are all in this together can vanish. (emphasis added)
The plain truth, of course, is that millions of Americans are not “willing to act together as a single political society,” at least as Lynch understands that idea. They don’t want to be “all in this together.” Do we need any better example than Obamacare? That monstrous bill was rammed through Congress, unread, without a single Republican vote, and it remains today wildly unpopular — and likely only to get more so as its problems become increasingly evident. Yet that disagreement — that dissonance — is precisely what modern liberals cannot countenance. How often have we heard the Obama mantra: “We’re all in this together”? We’re not all in this together, Mr. President. We want out of Obamacare — and out of so much else that has come to constitute the modern “economy-asphyxiating” welfare state.
And it isn’t as if these are new issues, as Lynch implies, the product of unhinged tea party Republicans. America’s Founders understood them clearly and made it abundantly clear that our fundamental principle is freedom — individualism, not collectivism. To be sure, they wrote a Constitution that was designed “to form a more perfect Union,” as opposed to the union formed by the Articles of Confederation. But it takes only a cursory look at that document to see that it gives the federal government only 18 limited powers, none of which authorizes the massive redistributive programs we have today.
We all know how those programs came about. Beginning in 1937, the New Deal Supreme Court, following Franklin Roosevelt’s threat to pack it with six new members, started systematically turning the Constitution on its head. Constitutional shields against power were turned into swords of power, all to enable Congress to begin enacting the programs Progressives had long been promoting. The result is the modern executive state, the countless administrative agencies where most law is actually made, as currently is happening with Obamacare.
But don’t take my word for the unconstitutionality of those programs. Here’s Rexford Tugwell, one of the New Deal’s principal architects, reflecting on his work some 30 years later: “To the extent that these new social virtues [i.e., New Deal policies] developed, they were tortured interpretations of a document [i.e., the Constitution] intended to prevent them.” They knew exactly what they were doing.
But Lynch invites us to believe that shutdowns raise the specter “that our current democratic form of government should be shuttered.” And that leads him to his second main concern — that “the unraveling of our joint commitments” will lead to a weakening of the legislative branch and to calls for a stronger executive branch to “step in” and make the decisions. Well, that’s already happening — witness the many lawless changes to the Obamacare law that have been unilaterally imposed by the president, without so much as a notice to Congress. But it’s not because of any shutdown threat. It’s because respect for constitutional limits is today so atrophied.
No one is calling for ending democratic government. But there’s all the difference in the world between constitutionally limited and effectively unlimited democratic government. We’re in this deficit and debt mess today because we’ve essentially abandoned the idea of constitutionally limited government — law that was meant to discipline our political appetites. When the constitutional floodgates were opened, the majoritarian and, then, special interest juggernaut poured through with one redistributive program after another, leading to the unsustainable war of all against all we see today. The pity is that too few Americans today understand these elementary principles, and those who do are pilloried as anti-social or worse. These issues will be back with us in just a few months. In the meantime, a little “public education” is in order.