“Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who holds the end of his chain.
By this system the people shake off their condition of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.”
Nearly two centuries ago a French diplomat was able to discern the eventual cause of the downfall of the great American experiment. What Alexis de Tocqueville realized was something even he likely could not have foreseen metastasizing into our current situation. He recognized that, in short, this is all your fault. What he couldn’t know was the extent to which the administrative despotism would compromise individual freedom, or how our two conflicting passions would lead the people to acquiesce to so tutelary and all-powerful a national government that we no longer even bother to shake off dependence to select our masters, but rather revel in it, and merely choose whichever guardian will pull the chains of our fellow citizens just a little tighter than our own.
The American experiment of a Constitutional, federalist system is dead. In fact, the corpse is bloated and has started to stink a little. Any movement in the corpse you think you see is just maggots and escaping gases and will stop soon enough. Through our combination of the “principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty” we have managed to vote ourselves into a system that is extremely heavy on the centralization and light on the sovereignty. Unfortunately, whether they realize it or not, this is the way most Americans actually want it.
The reasons some people have for being desirous of more centralized power are easy enough to discern: they’re the people Congress is overtly bribing with the People’s money. But this leads to the election of people based on promises to curb that overt bribery who, almost without fail, attempt to do so not by simply putting an end to it but instead by coming up with a system that less overtly bribes someone else in order to ensure support in the next election, all the while continuing the original bribery. This continues in a never ending loop of laws and laws to fix laws and laws to fix the laws that fixed the laws, every one of which somehow consolidates more power in Washington.
T.S. Eliot wrote that “humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and we can also not bear very much responsibility. The political question of how much governments should do for people, such as poverty alleviation / prevention programs (Social Security) or healthcare (initially in the form of Medicare and Medicaid) became federal issues largely because state representatives and voters were perfectly happy to cede those responsibilities (and most of the blame for the taxes required to fund them) to the federal government. True, states weren’t actually required to participate in Medicaid, but they all have since 1982; once the siren song of a new administrative despotism is heard, no amount of wax in the ears can save even the most liberty-loving of populations. How long, really, will any states hold out against the ACA expansions of Medicaid? How long will they hold out under whatever new shell game plan is passed next? The supposed efforts by our current masters to beat back the tide of the inevitable single-payer system is just Xerxes whipping the Hellespont.
So what is to be done by those of us who favor limited government at the federal level, now that we know the people we should be blaming for the current state of affairs are ourselves? That, friends, is the good news: there’s nothing we can do so there’s really not much use worrying about it. Human nature isn’t going to change, and the words of that insightful French diplomat are as true today as they were in 1835. The arc of history leads inevitably to civilizations collapsing, and the remnants of the American system may not survive both the demands of retired boomers and Bernie-voting Millennials. The best advice may ironically come from the noted boomer-era nihilist philosopher James Douglas Morrison: “I don’t know what’s gonna happen, man, but I want to have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames.”
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.