Everyone knows that Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” But as Ramesh Ponnuru recently pointed out, there is a “less famous yet crucial beginning of that sentence”: “In our present crisis.”
Conservatives rightly hate nanny-state government and big-spending bureaucracy. But too often, the word “government” has become unfair shorthand for what is actually only bad or oppressive government.
Conservatives aren’t anarchists, after all. We don’t want Big Brother, but none of us should want to live in a Hobbesian state where every person is absolutely and entirely for himself, either. Instead, we believe in ordered liberty via limited government.
Certainly, the size and scope of government has increased over the years. But still, we shouldn’t conflate all government with bad government. We need a functioning state, and yes, there is such a thing as a government that is too weak.
This is a lesson that goes back to our founding. And it’s one conservatives should appreciate. Judging from their colonial garb and tri-cornered hats, Tea Party activists are fond of the Constitution and its Founders. So you might expect that they, of all people, would appreciate the importance of having a government that isn’t laughably weak.
As Baylor professor and Patrick Henry author Thomas Kidd tells me, “Most of the major Founders became convinced that Americans needed a stronger national government to coordinate trade policy and protect against domestic and foreign threats.”
Under the Articles of Confederation, the government was impotent. “Major decisions — declaring war and signing treaties — needed the approval of nine states,” writes Richard Brookhiser in his book James Madison. Congress couldn’t even tax, and “as a result, the United States was perpetually broke,” Brookhiser adds.
To be sure, some patriots, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, opposed the Constitution precisely because they feared big government. But as Kidd points out, “the majority of the best-known Founders believed that the new republic needed a bigger, stronger government for the United States to survive and compete on the world stage.”
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” wrote Madison, who (in fairness) added, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
So, a natural question: What should a limited government do?
For starters, preserve law and order, ensure the rule of law, enforce contracts, provide for our defense — and yes, control the border. (I’m also partial to clean water, but that’s just me.)
Max Weber said the government has a “monopoly on legitimate violence in society.” This is needed to enforce law and order. Otherwise, whoever has the biggest gun — or the most brothers — takes your property.
“Government is the most common form of hierarchy,” Robert Kaplan recently noted. “It is a government that monopolizes the use of violence in a given geographical space, thereby preventing anarchy. To quote Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English philosopher, only where it is possible to punish the wicked can right and wrong have any practical meaning, and that requires ‘some coercive power.’”
But government functions don’t just keep us safe, they also make us prosperous. Sure, overregulation can be a job killer. But consider the extreme alternative. If you believe that someone could steal your business if he wants to, then you are much less likely to start one. If you believe that someone can break a contract with you — or steal your invention — without fear of punishment, that might make it less likely that you will go into business or to invest in research and development.
In their 2012 book Why Nations Fail, economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson provide a largely free market argument for why some nations succeed. For example, Acemoglu and Robinson fault protectionist policies instituted to avoid the process of creative destruction as a primary reason some nations fail.
But interestingly, they also frequently cite a lack of a strong central government as a prime reason nations fail. For example, the authors lament Somalia’s “lack of any kind of political centralization, or state centralization, and its inability to enforce even the minimal amount of law and order to support economic activity, trade, or even basic security of its citizens.”
I can’t imagine that any conservatives who decry government would prefer this sort of extreme chaos to our current, albeit imperfect, government.
So maybe the answer is to be more specific about our concerns with government. Attempting to do just that, Nobel Prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan distinguished between the productive state, the protective state, and the redistributive state.
Essentially, the productive state would constitute infrastructure like roads and bridges, the protective state would encompass the police, criminal justice, etc., and the redistributive state is obviously the entitlement state.
While most conservatives concede that we need some social safety net, they are mostly worried about the out-of-control growth of the redistributive state. And yet, too seldom is that distinction made. Instead, the criticism is usually directed at “government.”
When it comes to government, a lot of conservatives are probably too obsessed with size. Grover Norquist famously wants to shrink government to such a small size that you can drown it in a bathtub.
But I’m not sure most Americans want that. And trying to force it via draconian cuts doesn’t work, especially if they don’t address the specific problem, such as the need for entitlement reform. ”You can’t make a fat man skinny by tightening his belt,” observed John Maynard Keynes.
Whether you’re a conservative who cares about preserving law and order, or a free marketer who appreciates the importance the rule of law plays in providing confidence and incentives to entrepreneurs, you’re a fan of government. Stop pretending otherwise.
By: Matt K. Lewis, The Week, May 9, 2013
“Feeding The Paranoid Right”: Republican Politicians And Conservative Media Bear Direct Responsibility For Vile Thinking On The Right
In today’s edition of Republicans Think the Darndest Things, a poll from Farleigh Dickinson University that came out the other day found, as polls regularly do, that Americans in general and conservatives in particular believe some nutty stuff. That’s not news, but there are some reasons to be genuinely concerned, which I’ll explain. The headline finding is this: Respondents were asked whether they agree with the statement, “In the next few years, an armed revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties.” Forty-four percent of Republicans—yes, almost half—said they agreed. We’ve been doing pretty well with this constitutional system for the last 224 years, but it’s just about time to junk it.
The right reaction to any shocking poll result is to say, “Let’s not make too much of this.” And I don’t think any but a tiny proportion of the people who would answer yes to that question would start in or participate in a revolution. Let’s take the gun owners who email me every time I write an article about guns, telling me I’m an ignorant unmanly Northeastern elitist liberty-hating girly-man wimp (yeah, they’re heavy on the accusations of insufficient manliness; this is what psychologists call “projection”). If their neighbor came over and said, “Enough is enough; I’m going down to the police station to kill some cops—you know, for liberty. Are you coming?”, how many of them would say yes? Not very many.
Nevertheless, the fact that so many people are willing to even entertain the idea is appalling, and we have to put the responsibility where it belongs. We don’t know for sure if you would have gotten a different result had you asked this question before, say, January of 2009 (to pick a random date), because no one was asking. But Ed Kilgore has the appropriate reaction:
But our main target ought to be the politicians and pundits and bloggers that walk the revolutionary rhetorical road because it’s “entertaining” or it makes them feel all macho (like Grover Norquist swaggering around Washington with a “I’d rather be killing commies” button after one of his trips to Angola in the 1980s), or it’s just useful to have an audience or a political base mobilized to a state of near-violence by images of fire and smoke and iron and blood.
As I’ve observed on many occasions, you can only imagine how these self-appointed guardians of liberty would feel if casual talk of “armed revolution” became widespread on the left or among those people. There should not, cannot, be a double standard on this issue.
So please join me in calling on conservatives to cut this crap out and separate themselves from those who believe in vindicating the “original constitution” or defending their property rights or exalting their God or protecting the unborn via armed revolution. If William F. Buckley could “excommunicate” Robert Welch and the John Birch Society from the conservative movement back in the 1960s, today’s leaders on the Right can certainly do the same to those who not only share many of that Society’s views, but are willing to talking about implementing them by killing cops and soldiers.
As a general matter, I don’t think it’s necessary to demand that politicians repudiate every crazy thing said by anyone who might agree with them on anything.1 But Ed is absolutely right: Republican politicians and conservative media figures bear direct responsibility for the rise of this vile strain of thinking on the right. They cultivate it, they encourage it, they give it aid and comfort every single day.
For instance, the NRA is having its annual convention in Houston as we speak. Yesterday, a man went into the Houston airport with an AR-15 and a handgun, fired into the air, was fired upon by law enforcement officials, and then shot himself. Glenn Beck then went on his program and told his viewers that there is “a very good chance” that the episode was engineered by the “uber left,” whatever that means, and compared it to the Reichstag fire. In other words, Beck is encouraging people to think that just like Hitler and the Nazis, Barack Obama is about to use an episode like that as a pretext for the imposition of some kind of horrifically oppressive regime. Beck is a featured speaker at the NRA convention, along with a passel of well-known Republican politicians like Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum. How many of them will condemn him? None, of course.
They won’t, not only because most of the people at the convention probably agree with Beck, but because what Beck says is only a tiny step or two toward the fringe from what they say all the time. Is there a prominent Republican politician who hasn’t at some point in the last four years told people that Barack Obama is a tyrant, or that our liberties are being stripped away, that Obama wants to kill your grandma with his death panels, or that America is inches from ceasing to be what it has been for two centuries? Is there a prominent Republican politician who hasn’t done his or her part to feed the paranoid, violent fantasies of the extreme right? If confronted, they’d no doubt say, “Oh, well I never actually said people should forget about democracy and start killing cops and soldiers in an attempt to overthrow the government. That’s not what I meant at all when I talked about ‘tyranny’ and ‘oppression’ and that stuff.” But that’s exactly what their supporters heard, and they damn well know it. And they ought to be held to account.
1For some reason, not everyone gets asked to do this in equal measure. For instance, in Barack Obama’s first appearance on Meet the Press in 2006, Tim Russert confronted the Senate candidate with some inflammatory things Harry Belafonte had said about George W. Bush. Now what was the connection between Belafonte and Obama? I can’t think what it might have been.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 3, 2013
“Rejecting The 60-Vote Senate”: Vote Your Conscience On Merits Of Bills, Don’t Vote Against Allowing A Vote
In discussing the handful of senators—quite a few of them Democratic—who hold the fate of gun legislation in their hands, WaPo’s Greg Sargent makes a crucial point that is all too often forgotten:
it needs to be restated that these Senators have the option of voting Yes on breaking the filibuster, while voting No on the final vote. In that scenario, the proposal would likely pass with a simple majority. And so, if these Senators continue to hold out, they need to be pressed on whether they really think a proposal that has the support of eight in 10 Americans doesn’t deserve a straight up or down vote, at a time when the Newtown slayings have focused public attention on a problem that continues to claim the lives of thousands of Americans per year. Whatever their final vote, there’s no excuse for them to enable and participate in GOP obstructionism of a proposal with near universal public support.
Amen to that. But I’d go further, as I argued at The Democratic Strategist back in 2009
My personal feeling is that supporting a filibuster against your own party and your own party’s president should be treated as a serious and rare measure on major issues of conscience where the sacrifice of some of the prerogatives of seniority are a small price to pay. So maybe that price really should be paid. But at a minimum, the practice of thinking of cloture votes as identical to substantive votes, and tolerating defections on the former as just the same as the latter, needs to come to an end. There is no sixty-Senate-vote requirement for the enactment of regular legislation in the Constitution or in the Senate rules. We don’t need lockstep Democratic unity on policy initiatives. We just need unity on the simple matter of allowing the Senate to vote.
If we are not going to have genuine filibuster reform—and apparently we aren’t so long as Harry Reid is the Democratic leader in the Senate—then at least Reid and others, including the president, should begin making this distinction in every communication with or about senators on significant legislation: vote your conscience on the merits of bills, but don’t vote against allowing a vote, or there will be consequences.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, April 16, 2013
When the Senate takes up the bill to expand background checks for gun purchases this week, we will hear plenty rationalizations for opposing it similar to the one offered recently by Heidi Heitkamp, the newly elected Democrat from North Dakota: “In our part of the country, [gun control] isn’t an issue. This is a way of life. This is how people feel, and it is extraordinarily difficult to explain that, especially to grieving parents.” Heitkamp’s bottom line: “I’m going to represent my state.”
That state has a population that did not crack 700,000 as of last year. In other words, that state is smaller than cities like Columbus, Fort Worth and Charlotte, and is only slightly larger than El Paso, Memphis and Nashville. North Dakota is separate from South Dakota only because Republicans who dominated the Constitutional Convention in 1889 thought it better to carve two Republican-leaning states out of Dakota Territory (railroad politics also played a role). And yet, North Dakota will have as much say this week as California, Texas, New York and Florida—how those 699,000 people “feel” in towns like Minot and Williston and Fargo will matter as much as how 38 million people “feel” in towns like Los Angeles and San Francisco and San Jose. Small, rural states will not only make it much harder to expand background checks to the huge gun shows where a big share of firearms are purchased, they may succeed in passing an amendment that would allow states with lax regulations for concealed-carry to trump stricter rules elsewhere—that is, to allow someone who got a concealed-carry permit in Wyoming (population 576,000, smaller than Portland, Oregon) to carry a concealed weapon in New York, where it’s much tougher to get a permit.
The undemocratic nature of the upper chamber of our legislative branch of government has been noted many times—it is, as the New York Times observed in an in-depth piece just a few months ago, “in contention for the least democratic legislative chamber” in the world, with the 38 million people who live in the 22 smallest states represented by 44 senators, while 38 million Californians are represented by two. But it is worth dwelling on this feature of our government again this week, because there are few issues where it makes itself felt as strongly as on guns. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat, helped carry Obamacare to passage, but here he is on the background check bill: “I don’t support the bill, but I support open debate. Montanans are opposed to this bill—by a very large margin.” Montana’s population? Just over a million—a veritable giant by contrast with North Dakota, but also quite a bit smaller than Dallas, San Antonio and San Diego. And here’s Mark Begich shortly before he became one of two Democrats, along with Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, to decline to even allow the expanded background-check bill to come up for debate: In Alaska, he said, “We love our guns.” That’s nice! In Columbus, which has more people than Alaska’s 731,000, they love their Buckeyes, but that doesn’t mean they get to set national policy around them.
Bring this up, and the guardians of the wide-open spaces throw the Constitution in your face. But it’s worth recalling just how haphazardly this feature of our government came about, that it was not handed down from the mountaintop by James Madison. In fact, Madison, the father of the Constitution, vehemently opposed this design for the Senate when it was being debated at the Constitutional Convention. As a representative of one of the big states, Virginia, he was in favor of—gasp—apportioning votes in both legislative chambers by population. This fact is often lost on the small-state defenders, as I learned in the onslaught I received when I brought this matter up in 2009: They assume that because Madison supported one of the Senate’s initial undemocratic features—having its members selected indirectly, by state legislatures, in order to keep the Senate at a remove from the tempestuous masses—he must have supported undemocratic apportionment. He did not. He drafted the “Virginia Plan,” which called for two chambers, with members allotted by state population. Countering this was the “New Jersey Plan,” which called for only a single chamber with equal representation for each state (remember, this was pre-Short Hills Mall, and New Jersey was at the time a relatively small state.)
The solution, as any good civics student knows, was the Connecticut Compromise, which, as proposed by Connecticut’s delegates to the convention, created two chambers, the lower one apportioned by population, the upper one not. It was also hailed as the “Great Compromise,” which in hindsight makes it look like the first shining example of our political culture’s tendency to hail as achievements any deal that represents a middle point, no matter how shoddy its logic or deleterious its consequences. It’s also awfully ironic that it should be the Connecticut Compromise that may well keep the Senate from responding seriously to the worst act of mass violence ever perpetrated in Connecticut.
What to do? When, some time ago, I put this whole issue to Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat whose retirement led to Heitkamp’s ascension, he was taken aback: “This was the grand bargain that was struck when the Founding Fathers determined the structure and form of the United States Congress… Are you proposing changing the Constitution?”
Maybe I am. At the time of the not-so-Great Compromise, the largest state, Virginia, was 11 times bigger than the smallest, Delaware. The ratio between California and Wyoming is now 66 to 1, yet they have the same sway in the Senate. Could the Founders have envisioned that? And are we OK with that? If so, just don’t be surprised if the gun bill is blocked or seriously weakened this week despite polls showing overwhelming support for expanded background checks. Undemocratic institutions produce undemocratic results. Mr. Madison could tell you that.
By: Alec MacGillis, The New Republic, April 16, 2013
As a statue paying tribute to civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was unveiled in Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, which will decide the Constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that bears Ms. Parks’ name.
Section 5 of the VRA requires election officials in selected states and regions, mostly in the South, to pre-clear any changes to voting laws. This provision has been called the “cornerstone of civil rights law” in America.
“Is it the government’s submission that citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?” asked Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said no.
Roberts noted that Massachusetts had the lowest turnout rate of black voters while Mississippi had the highest. He and all of the conservative justices on the court expressed skepticism of the continued relevance of a law that was originally intended to be an emergency accommodation.
The Voting Rights Act was renewed for 25 years by a Republican Congress and signed by George W. Bush in 2006. But right-wing organizations and donors have waged a two-decade campaign to destroy Section 5.
The law was deemed Constitutional in 1999, before Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito joined the Court. Justice Clarence Thomas has previously called Section 5 unconstitutional and Justice Antonin Scalia’s antipathy to the law was clear to all in attendance.
Scalia called Section 5 a “perpetuation of racial entitlement” and suggested that Congress could never be convinced to let the law lapse. “They’re going to lose votes if they vote against the Voting Rights Act. Even the name is wonderful.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor twice asked Scalia, “Do you think Section 5 was voted for because it was a racial entitlement?” He did not answer either time.
Experts believe that Justice Anthony Kennedy will be the deciding vote on the case. He appeared extremely troubled by the idea of pre-clearance, saying it put some states under the ”trusteeship of the United States government.”
“Times change,” Kennedy said at one point.
“Kennedy asked hard questions — that’s his job,” Myrna Perez, a senior counsel with the Brennan Center, told the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent. “But the questions didn’t signal the law’s demise.”
Verrilli pointed out that jurisdictions can “bail out” of the pre-clearance requirement once they’ve demonstrated a 10-year discrimination-free record — nearly 250 of the 12,000 state, county and local governments covered by the law have bailed out.
Justice Elena Kagan noted that the covered jurisdictions hold 25 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 56 percent of voting-rights lawsuits.
Sotomayor asked Bert Rein, the lawyer representing Shelby County, Alabama, ”Why would we vote in favor of your county, whose enforcement record is the epitome of the reasons that cause this law to be passed in the first place?”
In his brief, Rein argued that conditions that made the law necessary no longer exist.
The Nation‘s Ari Berman, who was at the hearing, noted that the rash of legislative attempts to restrict voting rights since 2010, which he’s called the “GOP’s War on Voting,” never came up during the arguments.
By: Jason Sattler, The National Memo, February 27, 2013