I’ve heard that Congressman Barney Frank has defined government as “the things we choose to do together”. That’s cute. Here’s the quote as I’ve seen it:
Government is the name we give to the things we choose to do together.
What a can of worms. The first thing that strikes me about that statement is that it is not limited to institutions we normally think of as part of the civil government — it could mean big banks that more or less set monetary policy, for example. I agree with that aspect, that large monopolies have the potential to (but don’t necessarily) take on governmental roles and therefore should be considered part of government.
The next thing I think is that this might be true in a real democracy. In a democracy in which everything that was done by the government was implemented after a vote (a totally impractical prospect), this would be true. We’d have majorities voting for all of the various coercions imposed upon the public, and in that sense “we” would be choosing those things.
But that’s a scary thought. The founders wisely opted to establish a republic, not a democracy. That very fact makes clear that our government is not the things we choose to do together, but rather maybe just the things we do together. We don’t necessarily choose them all — instead, we choose leaders who we trust to make those decisions for us, even if at times we would overwhelmingly oppose them. That, by the way, is a huge moral responsibility for both the voter and the elected governor.
If government really does extend beyond the traditional institutions, and include other things not necessarily run by elected officials at all, then we no longer even have a pure republic. We have something that is part republic, part oligarchy. And that only further erodes the idea that we’re choosing what we’re doing together.
Moreover, can a majority choose to impose its will arbitrarily on a minority? The answer is of course no, at least not rightly. So the warm-and-fuzzy language of “things we choose to do together” is itself toxic.
Government is probably better understood in terms of collective coercive power. The government is composed of those institutions that can coerce you and me to do what they want us to, with or without our say (the part of our government that is a democratic republic is supposed to graciously hold out for our say most of the time).
How do we restore right and proper republican government? Throw the bums out, elect new men of principle, reform the existing constitutional government to bring it back in line with its intended form and function, and begin to seriously prosecute fraud and cronyism in the private sector, focusing particularly on those companies and individuals who have colluded with the government to gain access to its coercive powers for their own advancement. Only then can we restore freedom and liberty, and work with a sensible definition of government.
Officers and enlisted members of the U.S. military swear similar oaths affirming their duties before God. The variant recited by officers runs as follows:
I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
Many are taking note of just how broad this oath is, and what their duties are because of it. “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” has become a catalyst for protest against the enemies of the Constitution who now permeate the elected offices of our government.
These are real heroes.
Federalism is a bedrock principle underlying American government — keeping different layers of government with different powers in competition with one another was supposed to prevent a republican form of tyranny from arising. Barry Weingast identifies five features of federalism that create “market-preserving” (read: power-limiting) conditions of competition between governments:
- Each level of government has a delineated scope of authority
- Each government is autonomous in policy
- Sub-levels of government have primary regulatory responsibility over the economy
- Free trade and free movement of people are ensured by the central government
- Governments face hard budget constraints (no inflation and no bail out of the lower levels by the central level)
Since the Civil War, and especially following the reforms of the Progressive Era, we have seen this glorious institution eroded to the point that state governments are rarely much more than administrative arms and budgetary cop-outs of the federal government. This degradation of federalism has recently reached a new height of intensity.
In an April opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett proposed to cut off the expansion of federal power right at the source, in the very Constitution that ostensibly defines the scope of federal power, by passing a Federalism Amendment. Included amongst its provisions was the strict prohibition of intrastate regulation by Congress, an expansion of Congress’s regulatory power over interstate activity beyond commerce, a repeal of the income tax, and an explicit declaration that the Constitution’s words are to be interpreted “according to their public meaning at the time of their enactment”. This seemed like an awfully messy conglomeration of ideas, which, after a period of public commentary, he would recast as a 10-amendment Bill of Federalism, with sections entitled:
- Restrictions on Tax Powers of Congress
- Limits of Commerce Power
- Unfunded Mandates and Conditions on Spending
- No Abuse of the Treaty Power
- Freedom of Political Speech and Press
- Power of States to Check Federal Power
- Term Limits for Congress
- Balanced Budget Line Item Veto
- The Rights Retained by the People
- Neither Foreign Law nor American Judges May Alter the Meaning of Constitution
How would a Bill of Federalism ever be adopted? It would seem to only be possible by the states threatening to or actually calling a Constitutional Convention. That, of course, has never occurred before and probably never will. But suppose it were to — why would we expect our government to follow these amendments any more than it follows the rest of the Constitution? A written constitution was a magnificent experiment that has failed because we have allowed our governments to ignore the restrictions we once placed upon them — we are living in a “post-constitutional” nation now, where we mostly only refer to the Constitution for electoral procedures and public relations.
This well-intentioned effort to save federalism is tragically in vain.