Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How Much Government is Good Government?

The Founding Fathers Supported Powerful Government

The modern age has only complicated this question, one that has been argued over since before the founding of the Republic. In the years of the dawn of America, our Founding fathers attempted a confederation, with a weak central government and strong state governments. This arrangement was constructed in reaction to the powerful influence of the British crown, which the revolutionaries saw as oppressive, and from which they ultimately declared their independence. When chaos and anarchy emerged as the dominant atmosphere during the years following independence, the political establishment saw the need for a stronger central government, one that would hold the fledgling republic together, give the central government the power to tax, and to put teeth behind the government’s ability to enforce its own laws.

Freedom From Government?

The end result was the writing of the Federal constitution, effectively ending the confederation period, starting the Federal government, and the establishment of the most effective form of governance ever constructed in the history of the planet. The Constitution has been amended only 17 times since the adoption of the Bill of Rights, a package of ten amendments that secured the individual liberties of the nation’s citizens, placing limits on the intrusiveness of the federal government. These limits insure that citizens receive due process of law. The government cannot take life, liberty, or property without going through various legal steps that place an element of fairness on the process. The Fourteenth Amendment applies these standards to the states and insures that all citizens receive “equal protection of the law.”

The shift from confederation to federal system helped concentrate power at the federal level in what would become Washington, DC. State governments have their own designated powers, and they also share important powers with the federal government. Our republic is a representative democracy, where the lawmakers are elected by the people, who count on their elected officials to carry out their will through the passage and execution of the laws that the officials create. The people have some influence over the development of statutory law, but for the most part, their most powerful weapon is the ballot box, a tool which they can use to remove lawmakers who are not responsive to the will of the electorate.

The Emergence of the Welfare State

The role of government in the economy and in our lives in general is a major issue that defines the two major political parties in the United States. In modern politics, Republicans have been warning the American people about out of control federal spending since the rise of Reagan’s “new federalism” in the early 1980s. They have sounded the hue and cry of the dangers of massive federal deficits, and they decry the loss of our constitutional rights that have been eroded by the emergence of a welfare state that has grown in power that rivals the socialist systems of Western Europe. Indeed, the federal deficit doubled during the smoke-and-mirrors accounting of the Bush years, with its two wars and tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Once the groundwork for financial collapse was laid, Barack Obama instituted federal bail-outs of the banking and auto industries that increased the federal government’s involvement in the American economy to a greater degree than had ever previously been recorded. It looked like America was moving toward a socialist economy where the central government allows free enterprise but that directs and manages the major industries. This view was reinforced when Obama argued in favor of a “public option” to reform the American health care system. Conspiracy theorists believed that Obama, while backtracking on the public option, was just inching America’s doctors and hospitals toward a “single payer system,” insisted upon by the left and vilified by the right as “socialized medicine.”

Coffee or Tea?

While most Americans agree that the health care system needs reform in order to reduce costs, end insurance company abuses, and increase the number of Americans with health insurance, the two parties distorted each other’s plans, and even though the Democratic-controlled Congress has passed reform measures into law, more than half of Americans oppose the measures the Congress passed. The Tea Party Movement, an activist, and some would say extremist, off-shoot of the Republican Party, used health care reform as the basis for their opposition to anything stemming from the Obama presidency. The more vocal elements in this movement equate Obama with Hitler and health care reform with socialism and communism. Whether such comparisons are examples of demagoguery is up to the media pundits and Americans who must make such decisions on their own.

The Power to Govern

The willingness of Congress to pass a law which apparently is rejected by the American people is being described as a destruction of American liberty and a violation of the Constitution. The individual mandate to buy health insurance, and the fee levied upon Americans who refuse or fail to do so, is being described as a violation of the Commerce Clause, which, according to health care critics, cannot be used to force Americans to engage in commerce. There are precedents for such an action, but the larger question deals with Congress’ power to enact what it sees as what is right for America, even if it diverges from what is passing for popular opinion. The Elastic Clause, found in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, is conveniently forgotten by the Tea Party’s “strict constructionists.” It states that Congress can pass “all laws necessary and proper” for it to carry out its expressed powers. As any Civics lesson will show, the Elastic Clause “stretches” the power of Congress to a high degree, and it will take one or more lawsuits to test the Constitutionality of the new law, a decision that will be ultimately be made by the Supreme Court. The Founding Fathers knew Congress would encounter unforeseen crises. So they gave it unenumerated powers, or implied powers, needed in modern times.

The Cost of Compromise

If we believe some of the media reports, it would seem that American conservatives are growing increasingly suspicious of their government, even when those who cry out the loudest are members of it. The conservative outcry seemed to coincide with the ascension of Barack Obama, who they claim is usurping American freedom and corrupting the American constitution by increasing the scope of government and by allowing out-of-control spending on the federal level. Conservatives seemed to acquiesce to a powerful federal government during the Bush regime when warrantless searches took place in the wake of the September 11 attacks and when American citizens were arrested without probable cause other than an ethnic-religious similarity to the 911 hijackers. We heard no outcry against invasive government when terror suspects overseas were kidnapped and tortured in secret CIA outposts in a process called rendition. Only when their economic ascendancy is threatened by health care reform and financial regulatory reform to we see a backlash against government in a movement dominated by educated, upper middle class whites. Democrats on the other hand, sink back to their positions of power without giving voice to the concerns of poor Americans, to those who live in the inner cities, or to the struggling middle class, made up of average citizens working hard to hold on to their homes and their jobs.

Every reasonable person agrees that endless deficit spending is counterproductive and unsustainable. Saddling future generations with higher taxes and a federal debt that will only make Washington beholden to foreign governments and foreign economies, weakening America’s economy at home and power overseas. Democrats and Republicans alike have valuable ideas to offer, but they can only be put to work when a spirit of compromise replaces the polarized atmosphere inside the Congress and around the legislative process. Moreover, Barack Obama is the duly elected president of the United States until and unless the voters say otherwise in 2012. If the electorate wants him to govern from the center, our representatives in Congress will have to find solutions to America’s problems that everyone can live with, no matter where they fall on the ideological spectrum.

George Cassutto
Cyberlearning World