Big Government I: Hysteria as Reality

by A. Jay Adler on December 21, 2009
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As a major hurdle has been taken on the way to health reform legislation, with the Senate vote to close debate, some further consideration of BIG GOVERNMENT seems in order. I’ve been having a pleasingly civil back and forth with reader Neil (so little space for satisfaction in sarcasm, so much more in sense), which, after I claimed a degree of reflexivity in charges of BG, prompted this reply from him:

“Big Government” is shorthand for a more complicated notion, intuitively understood by many citizens.  Think of it as “BigGER Government beyond what can be effectively kept withinfederalistpapers bounds by the citizenry”.  Or “Big-ENOUGH Government to establish an uncomfortable level of control over the details of our lives”.  After all, we seemingly agree that there is some degree of governmental power beyond which freedom is irretrievable.

This is a response rich with ideas to explore. First, I’m not sure how complicated the notion is. It reaches back to the nation’s founding and is at the heart of every consideration, whenever and however it occurs, of a nation’s organization and its government’s maintenance: how to balance the requisite measure of governmental power to fulfill the tasks assigned to it by its constituents with the freedom of the constituents to remain, in satisfactory measure, independent of that governmental power. In a democracy, we, the people, grant you (I’ll return to that “you”), the government, the power to govern us, but we require that we retain control over that grant of power.

What complicates the politics, if not the notion, are differing conceptions of “the requisite measure of governmental power” and “the tasks assigned to it.” The healthcare debate stirs up fears with the focus on governmental power, but it begins, for opponents of reform, with dispute over what tasks are properly assigned to government. One tack opponents have taken – within the general economic and budgetary situation – is that of cost, and ultimately cost returns us to taxation, and to what degree, if at all, taxation itself is a power properly assigned to government to fulfill any of its tasks. As I say, as we know, these debates go back to our beginning. Among the topics of debate in the writing of the United States Constitution was that of the power to tax. In defense of this power Alexander Hamilton, as Publius, wrote in Federalist No. 31,

A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.

If the people gave the government responsibilities to fulfill, they needed to provide the government access to the funds necessary for the completion of those tasks: that access could only sensibly come via taxation.

I was properly Hamiltonian when I wrote in number 22 of my Principia that

Government is neither good nor bad. It is necessary. Neither is its size good or bad. It should be the size necessary to fulfill the responsibilities judged to be appropriate to it.

And as I wrote to another commenter, the conservative Nightelf,

As a liberal, of course, I have a more expansive understanding of “the general welfare” than do you, and thus assign more responsibilities to government than do you.

AH

The debate over healthcare, then, outside the disagreement about specific structures and provisions, is a debate over BG, and the debate over BG has several parts:

  1. the concern over fiscal propriety, which contains elements of the taxation divide, responsible budgeting, and pure BG (the amount of citizen money taken and controlled by government feeds its size);
  2. the concern over efficiency, which maintains that government by its bureaucratic nature and as a function of increased size is, inadequate, in comparison to private enterprise, to a wide range of tasks
  3. the concern over the amount of power government has over its citizens, or, as Neil put it, an “uncomfortable level of control over the details of our lives,” a “degree of governmental power beyond which freedom is irretrievable.

It is this last I wish to explore a little bit now. The role of firearms in American society, outstanding among other Western democracies, also has several parts. There is the hunting culture. Related to it is the foundational character, in American history, of armed, self-sufficient wilderness conquering and settlement. And a third element is that to which the Second Amendment to the Constitution refers and historically suggests, including the right to bear arms in order to deter undemocratic government. Contemporary extremist “militia” groups conceive of their right prominently through this perspective.

However, this raises the question of what it means – as a matter of citizen and organized action – in a twenty-first century America, to speak of a “degree of governmental powerduel beyond which freedom is irretrievable.” How can freedom come to be so lost that it would require retrieval, and what would it mean – what would be entailed – to retrieve it?

As it happens, Hamilton had some related insights on this issue in that same Federalist 31. He was addressing the fear of State’s right opponents that an unchecked power of the federal government to tax would deprive the States of the means to tax, and thus accrue excess power to the federal government. This was Hamilton’s response:

This mode of reasoning appears sometimes to turn upon the supposition of usurpation in the national government…. The moment we launch into conjectures about the usurpations of the federal government, we get into an unfathomable abyss, and fairly put ourselves out of the reach of all reasoning. Imagination may range at pleasure till it gets bewildered amidst the labyrinths of an enchanted castle, and knows not on which side to turn to extricate itself from the perplexities into which it has so rashly adventured. Whatever may be the limits or modifications of the powers of the Union, it is easy to imagine an endless train of possible dangers; and by indulging an excess of jealousy and timidity, we may bring ourselves to a state of absolute scepticism and irresolution.

I’ll continue my consideration of the loss of freedom and the retrieval of it tomorrow, including what more Hamilton had to say on the issue, but it’s worth pointing out, as so many Americans know, that the fear of the loss of power by States – in fact, even constitutionally unaccounted for cities – to tax, proved unwarranted.

AJA


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Neil December 21, 2009 at 12:56 pm

“the fear of the loss of power by States – in fact, even constitutionally unaccounted for cities – to tax, proved unwarranted.”

Unfunded federal mandates which eat up state budgets, to the detriment of local concerns? States forced by “tax revolts” to lower the property or income taxes which pay for local infrastructure, at least in part because of the ever-growing federal share of tax revenue? The incipient federal bail-out of the coastal blue states?

You are simply averting your eyes from the States’ loss of power. It is legitimate to argue that State power should be minimized, in favor of a uniform Federal law for the entire country–but how can you ignore this dynamic?

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