Wednesday, May 27, 2009


In a recent op-ed in the pages of the Washington Post, Newt Gingrich attempts to revive the old playbook of the Reagan Revolution by attempting to argue that a disgruntled electorate will and should seek to elect to power a party that is fundamentally anti-government. Get it? Send anti-government people to Washington. Good plan.

Forgive me - and thousands upon thousands of my countrymen - of some degree of skepticism. It turns out that once the anti-government Party arrived at the punchbowl, they found the brew to their liking. But more: it was discovered that power is fun to wield. They followed the old Polemarchian adage of politics - that the end of politics is to help one's friends and hurt one's enemies.

The same issue of the Washington Post also happened to carry a story about the Obama administration's reversal of the Bush policy of "preemption." Preemption, in this case, does not refer to the "Bush Doctrine" in international affairs, but rather a quiet and largely unremarked upon policy by which the Federal government presumptively and preemptively overturned State-based laws in areas of interest to private business interests. According to one person quoted in the article, "'It's environmental law, it's drug law, it's mortgage law, it's a whole host of areas where the Bush administration was really aggressive about using regulatory action to clear state and local laws that businesses and corporations didn't like,' said Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center." Federal regulation was regularly, even promiscuously used to overturn legitimate State legislation in areas where private business demanded uniformity for the sake of efficiency, profit, and economies of scale. So much for the idea that the States are the "laboratories of democracy."

So, if we are to believe NEWT, then a vote for the Republican Party will mean a blow struck for anti-government forces. Yet, in point of fact, we see two parties that shamelessly and gleefully use the powers of the central government to advance the particular interests they represent. There is - and, truth be told, can be - no party of "anti-government," only better and worse ways to govern. At the moment we have two parties that are designed to reward that part of the electorate that puts them into power, and in particular powerful and well-financed interests that demand a highly active federal government that successively and unwaveringly increases power to the center.

Still, the anger and frustration that Newt identifies among the electorate is real, and a smart political leader who argued for a government that governs close to home (not simply "anti-government," but the goods and benefits of more local government) - and proposes actual paths and policies to effect that end - I believe would attract a large swath of the electorate. First, however, we need to get beyond the canard that some "party of anti-government" is waiting in the wing. It's time to clean those particular Aegean stables, and Newt's dung should be the first to be washed out.


Conor said...

Precisely. Cf. Bertrand de Jouvenel's On Power

Tim Lacy said...

Dear Patrick,

You wrote: "A smart political leader who argued for a government that governs close to home (not simply "anti-government," but the goods and benefits of more local government) - and proposes actual paths and policies to effect that end - I believe would attract a large swath of the electorate."

Okay. But there is another problem. It seems to me that well-meaning people use a good principle, subsidiarity, to justify too many arguments against federal government. They overextend. Subsidiarity is not opposed to federalism, but rather is against ~unjust~ federalism. Subsidiarity is a an important ~part~ of justice in politics, but it is no panacea.

We return, therefore, to justice. If powers close to home are unjust, then we need a federal government capable of timely intervention. Likewise, if the federal government acts unjustly, then minorities (i.e. local powers) must be invested with the power to legitimately resist. Justice then attains to a higher priority than subsidiarity.

In sum, a well-balanced, thoughtful judiciary matters in our kind of democracy to help weed through our situations. So we return to the notion of good government (which consists of the judiciary), rather than no government or anti-government. Newt's got it all wrong.

And to return to one of your blog's ongoing themes, a sense of place lends itself to subsidiarity. But the federal government also operates with a sense of place---the nation. Too much of an emphasis on local place can undermine a nation's sense of common place, or culture. If our sense of the local is too strong, we will find ourselves unwilling to accept taxes that build roads in Idaho, say, if we live in Virginia---forgetting that our system of unrestricted interstate commerce allows for the import affordable potatoes.

In sum, how do we prevent the good of the local from becoming parochial? How can guys like Newt get away with minimalizing, or forgetting, about the dangers of local small-mindedness that are the hazards of subsidiarity?

- TL

Kevin Sawyer said...


"If powers close to home are unjust, then we need a federal government capable of timely intervention. "

On what basis? Who decides what is unjust? If local politicians are incapable of determining what constitutes injustice, then why do we trust politicians at the federal level? I (and Newt) would argue that the Constitution strikes such a balance as is.

"In sum, a well-balanced, thoughtful judiciary matters in our kind of democracy to help weed through our situations. "

Again, where does this come from? Why is it desirable to have unelected judges weed through our situations? Newt is not arguing that we should eliminate the judiciary, or that it should be staffed incompetently, so what distinction are you drawing, here?

"forgetting that our system of unrestricted interstate commerce allows for the import affordable potatoes. "

No. It allows for the profitable export of potatoes for Idaho, which is perceived to be the only state that grows the things. Minnesota grows highly affordable potatoes, but our farmers pay their income taxes in order to truck in potatoes with better marketing.

Interstate transportation, in tandem with ludicrous agricultural policy at the federal level, has led to a nutritional malaise and lack of sustainable farming that is literally killing us and the environment.

Our system of interstates has been plowed through our city centers, resulting in concentrated poverty. Why do you think they call it living on the wrong side of the tracks?

All of which is to say that we cannot simply point to one or two things that federal government has achieved, and thereby argue for increased federal government. The federal government has a purpose, to preserve our Republic so that states may function freely within it. No thoughtful weeding necessary.

Tim Lacy said...

Dear Kevin,

You ask why I would argue for federal judiciary intervention in a case where local politicians act unjustly. Well, because sometimes villages, townships, cities, and regions act within thought structures that are parochial or philosophically incomplete. An example would be The South during the 1960s. De facto segregation existed there to a degree that was more pronounced than in other areas of the country. This segregation required federal intervention.

So that I'm not unfairly picking on The South, I'll cite another example from the North, from Chicago. Citizens of Chicago seem to exhibit a tolerance for political/police corruption that is more pronounced than in other areas of the country. Because of this federal prosecutors/investigators are sometimes required to step in.

Judges are not always unelected. Ballots in Chicago, for instance, list judges and require a certain level of popular support to remain on the bench.

- TL

Springfield Reformer said...

If I may, I would like to suggest that there is a connection between decentralization and the founders' philosophy of human nature. Grounded as they were in the Calvinistic worldview, they designed the American system, not for efficiency, but for restraint of the evils of human nature. In an efficient system, decisions stemming from the self-interests of the governors are implemented without inhibition, doing more damage faster to the interests of the governed than would be possible in a deliberately less efficient system. In the American system, the design was to be as efficient as is possible under the weight of a defective human spirit.

Thus, to the extent the notion of an anti-government party represents, not a rejection of government per se, but a rejection of a government unrestrained by a healthy, well-armed skepticism, the concept is not only possible, but a necessary outcome of our long experience with various models of governance. The idea is simple. There is a boundary past which each successive level of government cannot go. We are to define and defend that boundary vigorously, because the sum of those zones unoccupied by government constitutes our freedom. If we allow an all-powerful judiciary to set, move, or remove those boundaries, with no point of reference outside themselves, we have surrendered the game, because they too have that defect of human nature that tends to unhelpful acts of self-interest.

Those advocating subsidiarity as the sole solution are of course missing the point. Local governments can become as corrupt as broad national governments, and for the same reasons. The difference is that local governance tends to emerge from the values of the local population, thus ensuring a greater alignment of interests between the rulers and the ruled, which in turn will tend to dampen outliers. This can be good, as in the rejection of local tyrants, or it can be bad, as in the oppression of unpopular minorities. Still, all said and done, a local tyranny or a local injustice is easier to overcome than a broad federal tyranny or an injustice imposed locally by a federal army. Thus it is reasonable to think that subsidiarity, while not the entire solution, represents the necessary starting point of local control.

But this begs the great question raised by Kevin: If people are corruptible, if legislators, executives, and judges all alike cannot be trusted to always act in the interests of the governed, on what basis then can anyone determine whether good laws have been written, or good judgments made, or orders fairly and reasonably carried out, where there is no external reference point for what constitutes "the good?" No design of a political system can address this fully. The best, first step is the deliberate Balkanization of subsidiarity. But to this must be added a virtuous people who share, to the extent possible, a common understanding of the fundamental goods. Without some accepted external reference point for defining virtue, subsidiarity descends even further into a kind of absolutist individualism, which yields an intolerable social chaos, which cannot function and opens the way to a larger tyranny.

Therefore, for there to be freedom, for there to be peace, some view of virtue must win the day. Such virtue cannot be imposed artificially, but gains its power of legitimacy by resonating with the minds and hearts of both the governors and the governed. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, must begin with respect for those universal, God-given, and therefore inalienable rights which have the moral power to restrain both governmental and social evil. In a time when the chief of those rights, the right of life itself, is looked upon with such distain and confusion, it is not surprising to find the people who inhabit government unwilling to recognize the boundaries set for them, whether by the Constitution, the expressed will of the people, or the soundings of the natural law at work in all human hearts.