An old chestnut holds that we get the government we deserve. To some degree, that’s true. The American public has a huge amount of theoretical leverage over its Ruling Class. Broadly speaking, no nominally free population can be eternally bound by any system of laws it profoundly disagrees with. Any aspect of law or government could be changed. The Constitution has been amended many times.
But as a practical matter, it would be more accurate to say we get the government we submit to. The government is not a force of nature, or a disinterested party, or – contrary to currently fashionable liberal rhetoric – the “one thing we all do together.” It’s not an organic expression of our popular will. The government is a special interest, the largest “lobbyist” on the planet. It lobbies itself endlessly for more power and money. It uses its power to shape popular opinion, in a highly inefficient feedback loop that wastes a great deal of money, but accomplishes its mission of engineering the populace to accept a constantly growing State. Uncle Sam is not our humble servant, or a responsible and loyal steward of our trust. He has his own agenda, he protects his interests against troublesome sectors of the population, he punishes his domestic enemies, and he’s always looking for opportunities to expand.
The American people don’t come together for reasoned debate, after which their representatives carefully vote to authorize some new power or spending, mindful of the cost in money and freedom (which are ultimately the same thing.) No, we get new programs because the Ruling Class desires them. The government demands the right to move into a new area of our lives, railing at dissenters for daring to deny it. We’re on the defensive, forced to explain why we should be able to keep control over each threatened aspect of commerce or liberty, expected to justify our defiance of the all-wise, all-knowing, all-caring State. When we refuse to submit, we’re anarchists; when we refuse to pay our tithe, we’re greedy; our liberty is a frigid wasteland upon which the hapless Little People will surely perish.
Of course, the State has plenty of help. Rent-seekers, cronies, political hustlers, dependents… there are a lot of people who profit from each new expansion of the State. Questioning the motives of political opponents, and sniffing out traces of hidden self-interest, is a fine old political sport. But no one dares ask if the State and its favorite dependents are acting in their own greedy self-interest when they want to take money and liberty away from others. Every opponent of “global warming,” for example, is denounced as a paid shill for Big Energy. But isn’t it obvious that the proponents of global warming have an immense financial interest in its success, too? Isn’t it obvious that politicians love a theory that puts the government in charge of vast resources, granting it the authority to issue scads of micro-regulation… and, better yet, special exemptions for its very special friends?
At this point, given the immense size of the federal government – a $3.6 trillion dragon curled upon a fools-gold hoard of $17 trillion in accumulated debt – is it not fair to say that everyone involved in any major policy debate has their own agenda, their own interests to protect? It’s absurd to let the acolytes of the State posture as selfless do-gooders when they, and their allies, so clearly profit from their ideas. (Never mind that it’s all too easy to be “altruistic” with other peoples’ money.)
It is also foolish to assert that no one can honestly agree, or disagree, with a position because he has personal interests on the line. That’s a line of thought that leads quite swiftly to atrophied liberty and domineering rule by a Ruling Class that loves to boast of its boundless compassion. There is nothing sinister about a shoemaker opposing a law that would make shoes more expensive. There is nothing inherently noble about telling other people what to do. Authority can be used wisely, or it can be abused. It has a pronounced tendency toward perpetual abuse when it reaches a certain critical mass. It is difficult to assert the wisdom and dignity of the private sector while agreeing to make it smaller with every passing month.
An interesting new Gallup poll tells us that “Americans’ trust in ‘the American people’ to make judgments about political issues facing the country has declined each year since 2009, and at 61 percent, is down nearly 20 percentage points from its recent peak in 2005.” That’s not surprising. The growth of the State inevitably brings a loss of public confidence. If we were such a great people, we wouldn’t have to be monitored, controlled, and punished like hapless babies.
Current liberal theories say there’s no way America could possibly survive the hellish conditions of relatively modest government and broad economic liberty that existed just a few generations ago. In fact, they tell us Obama’s America would die under the comparatively small government of Bill Clinton. We are not the people we once were. We’re weak and foolish. We could not be trusted with the hammers and drills out Greatest Generation used to rebuild the world after the defeat of the Axis. We can only be properly nourished and protected if the government spends far more money than it actually has, on a permanent basis. A rapidly growing portion of the American population cannot even be trusted to feed itself without government assistance. The number of important issues we’re even permitted to vote on is dwindling as quickly as the sphere of personal liberty.
If we didn’t buy all that hogwash, we could throw off the weight of Big Government, patch the leaky pipes of corruption, put a stop to absurd government waste, burn off the strangling vines of regulation, and restart the economy in fairly short order. But we do buy it. At least, a critical Dependency Class buys it enough to keep the Ruling Class in power. This didn’t happen spontaneously. Decline was pushed a few inches at a time, across the span of a century, until American confidence rotted away enough to let them push for feet instead of inches. We were not willing to sacrifice our pride all at once. It took a while to make us forget what we were once capable of.
We didn’t really get the government we deserved. We got what we no longer had the strength to refuse. We gave up what we no longer valued enough to defend. And we didn’t pay enough attention to how the process was changing us. The great remaining question is whether we can re-discover enough trust in one another to be great again. The Ruling Class is skeptical.