Comprehensive: Caveat emptor

“Comprehensive” sounds good.  Really good.  It sounds like serious-minded people are rolling up their sleeves to tackle big issues with big answers.  It sounds like a forward thinking, all-inclusive strategy.  It sounds responsible, it sounds bold, and it sounds good.

Now think about this:

1. Comprehensive immigration reform

2. Comprehensive energy policy

3. Comprehensive healthcare reform

The latter one of these is the law of land, at least for the time being.  The former two are this close to being (I’m holding my index finger and thumb about three-quarters of an inch apart).  You could throw McCain/Fiengold in there as “comprehensive campaign finance reform,” but it didn’t fundamentally change a system, so for the purposes of this argument, I’m not considering it comprehensive (and a big thank you to the Roberts court for striking down part of it).

So what do you think about the strategy of tackling America’s issues with a “comprehensive” approach now?  President Bush 43 did a lot of good things – pushing for an ultimately failed comprehensive immigration policy was not one of them.  Now Mr. 44 has taken up that mantle.  And I don’t think we have to say much here other than “healthcare reform” (except possibily ‘Stupak’) to make the point.

I am a big believer in the Clarence Thomas understanding of Constitutional originalism (aka ‘what they said is what they meant . . .duh).  Maybe it’s because the U.S. Constitution didn’t have any female signers (sorry ladies, you know I love you), but I for one believe that the Constitution meant that what the people who wrote it meant what they wrote when they wrote it. Its not really a hard concept to grasp.  If I write that your right to keep and bear arms not be infringed, well, that’s pretty much what I mean. So, let’s look at the intent of the founders as it relates to a “comprehensive” legislative strategy.

First, the framers made clear that the federal government would have to co-exist with other forms of government – primarily state but also local.  The framers actually said that powers not expressly granted to it by the Constitution would be reserved to the states and (actually ‘or’) the people.

Second, for the proponents of the “living, breathing” Constitutional philosophy (that’s a whole ‘nother diary entry), the framers left exactly and expressly two methods of changing the law of the land – a supermajority in Congress or a ratification of a supermajority of states legislatures.

Third, after establishing the principle of Federalism, the framers further diluted the power of the central government by dividing it into distinct co-equal segments, each with a specific mission and a specific set of responsibilities which balanced the responsibilities of the other segments.  Remember seventh grade civics?  The legislative makes the laws, the executive enforces the laws, and the judicial decides if the laws are allowed under the Constitution.

Fourth, the framers still further diluted centralized power by splitting the legislative branch (the one of which they had the most working knowledge as the parliamentary system was established in England), into two chambers – one more populist in nature (the House of Representative), and one more deliberative (the Senate).

What conclusion can we draw from these four points?  I think there’s an obvious one – the framers made it as difficult as possible for a centralized government to move quickly and dare I say “comprehensively.”  Seriously, think about it.  One branch is split in two and must achieve approval from both sides to move action forward; then another branch much actually approve the same action as passed; then another branch must recognize that the action is consistent with the overarching law of the land.  And Constitutional amendments?  The only way constitutionally mentioned as a method of changing the Constitution –  I’ve got to think that when requirements like “super majorities” and state legislative ratifications are mandated, the intention wasn’t to play fast and loose with changes to the law (even back then, them boys had their differences).  If changes were not meant to be fast and loose, then we must assume the intent would be to make changes deliberately and incrementally.

So here we are in the Age of Obama, where “comprehensive” is king, and those of us wanting to tackle a problem incrementally or even roll backward the status quo are labeled “the party of no.”  Well, I for one think we should wear this mantle proudly – not as “the party of no,” but more rightly as “the party of know.”

Conservatives from Burke to Buckley to Reagan understood that our civilization – that last, best, and most free hope of mankind – didn’t spring to global prominence through a tradition of rash comprehensive actions.  That’s what lost Napoleon Waterloo, and Hitler the whole of Europe.  In America’s instance, just the  the opposite is true.

Pre-revolutionary colonial America actually enjoyed a higher standard of living, lower rate of disease, and greater proficiency of education when compared to mother England.  Colonists were generally free of the urban decay of London and York, not bound to the intrigues of Westminister and Parliment, and with a tyrant 3,000 miles and an ocean away, felt much more at ease to do as they may please.  Not that they were bad citizens (or, um, subjects, I guess they would have been then).  Most were British through-and-through, and proved it with the sacrifice of blood and treasure on the battlefield for the motherland during the French & Indian War.

Well, after this war, King George and John Hancock took a little different view on the situation.  The United Kingdom had sacrificed professional military assets and good sterling to defend the colonies in a war which had spread to the American shores after being initiated on the Continent.  Americans, on the other hand, believed that we had provided our own private militias, personal fortunes, and much local knowledge-and-knowhow to help the motherland defeat a foreign ally on our own soil.  We were fighting for Britain, but we were also fighting for America, a concept which colonists still associated with the UK, but increasingly came to believe was a unique, special designation (American Exceptionalism anyone . . . Mr. President?).

Frankly, I can see both sides of this issue, but I do tend to come down on ours.  Politically speaking, we were territories.  It was the duty of the motherland to defend us.  We made our sacrifices, and honestly making us pay any more would be like taxing the citizens of California for the results of an invasion from Mexico (and official invasion, I mean).  This kind of thing wouldn’t happen now, but it is exactly what happened then.  And we would have none of it.  We wanted to help mother England, but we also wanted to protect this way of life that we had built through perseverance, self-reliance, and sheer will power.

So after this long historical digression, back to my original point.  American Exceptionalism didn’t spring from bold, comprehensive moves.  Rather, it developed from a culture of preserving who we had always been, and making the incremental, deliberate changes to our society when such changes fit with the spirit of our execptionalism.

Now I find it preemptively necessary to simultaneously reinforce my point while exploding the opposition’s “best” argument for comprehensive central government action: (wait for it . . . wait for it . . .) SLAVERY.  And no, this isn’t the race card, this is every bid ideological.  Even most of the slave-owning framers of our Constitution believed slavery to be an anathema to the spirit of our new Nation.  They hoped it could be dealt with peaceably and incrementally – as they hoped for most issues facing our nation.  In this instance, they were wrong, but only partly so.

Yes, on the surface the events surrounding the emancipation of the slaves is a comprehensive change in the way the U.S.A. conducted business.  However, going back to my original premise of original intent, it becomes clear that the framers would rather not have had slavery on American shores, and took measures to deal with its gradual abolition through attrition balanced with the least danger to the society’s fabric (and I mean both ‘white’ society and ‘black’ society when I say this).  With the spirit of our law of the land, the hope was that we would be free of the loathed institution in one, two, certainly three generations.  And although perhaps not made legally canonical, through personal and extra-personal actions, many framers laid the groundwork for a slavery-free American nation – the establishment and support of Liberia, the strong political opposition to the expansion of slavery to new territories, and not least the genuine concern of many slave owners for the safety, survival, and prosperity of their slaves if given blanket freedom apart from a social safety net.

So what point is this rambling diarist trying to make relative to my argument against “comprehensive” government action?  Proponents of attacking problems in a comprehensive manner will point to the emancipation of slaves as an instance of successful governmental interventionist comprehensive policy.  On many levels, point granted, but not all. The idea that “all men are created equal” is embedded in America’s founding philosophy.  The ideals of free enterprise and self-reliance have always been key to the American character (as some for the trained British soldiers who fell to American militia came to realize).  Slavery was at every point in its existence an institution that lived in spite of, not enabled by these American ideals.  It is simply not “American” to say “someone else should harvest my crops for me for no pay and poor living conditions.”  It is highly American to say “I should be responsible for my own health decisions, not the government,” or “the choice for the education of my children should fall to me, not a federal bureaucrat.”

So, hopefully that will explode, or at least dilute, the “well what about slavery” argument that I know is coming in reference to the cause against “comprehensive” government action.

Simple point is, to make major policy changes to American society, American economics, or the idea of America’s role in the world, these changes should occur slowly, with much debate, and occur within our current system. I’ve said it before – “If you don’t like the way it is, then change the law.”  Well, how can anyone argue with that?  If you find you have to go the way of a Constitutional Amendment to make a change to the law of the land, so be it – our founders had enough forethought to provide their heirs with a conduit to do such.  But they also made the mechanism for doing such very slow and deliberate.  I for one don’t think this is an accident, or an obstacle. I think it is a lesson in good governance.

Keeping the faith,
>Your Keeper – The Liberty Tree Tavern