Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Unlimited Government: a cautionary tale

Alas, it is not a "tale," but the reality of our times.

Anyone who follows this website (all six of you) has probably sensed that my conservatism is heavily tinged (enhanced? poisoned?) with a libertarian streak. Not the high-school-kids-have-a-right-to-drugs libertarianism, but rather the belief in small government, property rights, and federalism. How to express my own brand of libertarian conservatism? If I am smart, I will let people like Christopher Demuth of the American Enterprise Institute do the talking for me.

"Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in a famous opinion that federalism fosters “laboratories of democracy,” where policies can be tried in individual states and their good or poor results noted elsewhere. The growth of federal power has shuttered many of those laboratories. A federal government that can ban the personal use of medical marijuana grown right in your own backyard—which is plainly neither “interstate” nor “commerce,” yet was easily upheld by the Supreme Court last term—can do just about anything to blot out local policy choices."

Demuth gives many examples of this constitutional malaise, but notes that most of the egregious examples pass with no public (and often little congressional) scrutiny.

"My examples may seem arcane and tedious compared to abortion, religious displays in public places, detainment of suspected terrorists, and other hot issues now at the center of our Constitutional arguments. And that is exactly my point. The Constitution’s own purposes, provisions, and architecture of government no longer attract our interest or give us much pause when they stand in the way of doing something that sounds good or is backed by an influential constituency. It is now invoked mostly in opportunistic ways to bulk up arguments about policies we support or oppose for other reasons."

But is this really different from the way things have always been? Without mythologizing the past, Demuth demonstrates that we really have turned a corner.

"In the Republic’s early days, Presidents used their veto power almost exclusively to strike down bills they regarded as violating the Constitution, not those they disagreed with on policy grounds."

Contrast that to the pathetic Republican response to the unconstitutional McCain-Feingold bill, in which both speech and participation in politics is now limited.

"But when McCain-Feingold passed in 2002, it contained even greater restrictions on individual speech and group issue-advocacy than earlier versions of the bill, and lacked any provision to invalidate the full law if parts proved un-Constitutional. Whereupon President Bush, under intense political pressure following six years of Congressional deliberation on the bill, signed it into law anyway—while noting his “serious Constitutional concerns” and his expectation that “the courts will resolve these legitimate legal questions.”

Remember when Tom Delay (R) claimed that congress had cut nearly all of the fat out of the budget? Ponder that nugget of wisdom as you read this:

"It has now been 25 years since Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington announcing his intention to “check and reverse the growth of government.” That quarter century has been governed mainly by Republican Presidents, and increasingly by Republican legislatures, and even the one Democratic President declared that “the era of big government is over.” Yet the federal government’s annual domestic spending doubled during the period, from about $900 billion to about $1.8 trillion (in 2000 dollars). Today the federal government’s fiscal imbalance—the excess of projected future expenditures over projected future revenues—is close to $70 trillion."

Of course, this is debt that you and I will pass on to our children...and their children.

Ah, conservative, fiscal responisbility.

I highlight Demuth's comments on spending madness and financial unaccountability, but he uses these facts to underscore the shrinking of liberty, personal and regional, that accompanies such looting.

Read (and print and keep) the whole piece. My quotes don't do it justice. Demuth has nicely diagnosed our national disease. His "upbeat" conclusion, however, left me cold. Not because it isn't desirable, but because the rest of his piece leaves me wondering if it is even plausable.


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