What is it that Congress hath wrought with the debt limit deal? It apparently depends on to whom you are addressing the question. Liberals believe it’s the end of the world as we know it. Conservatives believe they’ve been snookered. And nobody knows what the president thinks because he’s irrelevant and no one has bothered to ask him.
In truth, we’ve been witnessing a rare moment in American history: a debate about the size, the role, and the nature of government itself. Of course, it’s been an extremely nebulous sort of debate. Nobody has taken out impossible-to-read flow charts and tried to explain how the federal government actually works. Nor have we heard much quoting of Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, or Burke. Americans debate difficult issues by not debating them at all. We talk about something else, and pretend we’re discussing the real issue. While this has the effect of keeping the country from flying apart at the seams, it does nothing to advance the vitally important debates that define us as a nation and a people.
Consider the issue of slavery. We managed not to talk about it for 80 years, preferring instead to nibble around at the edges of it by arguing over where it should be allowed or banned. Only the abolitionists were willing to confront the issue and they were considered “extremists” by the Democrats of the day. If Lincoln had not been elected, it is very possible that we would have continued to tolerate slavery for decades, patching together compromise after compromise, kicking the can down the road for another generation to deal with.
So, too, the matter of equal rights. The “debate” over civil rights tore the Democratic Party asunder in 1964 when, instead of the Democratic convention talking about the Voting Rights Act, or civil rights, they talked about credentials. The all white, regular Mississippi Democrats were being challenged for seating on the convention floor by the “Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party,” who were made up of both blacks and whites. The regular Democrats had systematically excluded blacks by denying them the right to vote in the Democratic primary.
In the end, a perfectly American compromise was hammered out when two of the Freedom Democrats were granted alternate status while the rest of their party were designated as “invited guests” and seated on the floor. Most importantly, no future Mississippi delegation would be seated unless they adhered to the rules governing the choosing of delegates.
Further, we still don’t talk about race in America in any meaningful way. It is impossible when one side believes that it has a corner on morality and that any deviation from their treasured definitions of the issues surrounding race is tantamount to racism. When winning the argument is more important than fleshing out the points of contention that divide us, regular conversation is useless.
So it’s not surprising that the debate over the size, scope, and purview of government would take the form of a discussion about taxes and spending. It is much less convulsive to the body politic than arguing over far more difficult concepts like what the Constitution means, what should government’s role be in a 21st-century, industrialized, continental democracy of 300 million people, or real questions of liberty and tyranny upon which our future as a free nation hangs.
Government has grown so big that it is impossible to control. Have we ever asked how any government purportedly representing a free people can possibly oversee, manage, direct, command, administer, or even comprehend such complexity as our federal government today? One president, 535 members of Congress, and nine Supreme Court judges cannot even remotely grasp what they have wrought in our names. Yes, the president has cabinet officers who are supposed to ride herd on their departments. But even if they are competent, intelligent, and dedicated public servants, how much can they truly grasp of their department’s total impact on citizens?
My colleague at PJMedia, David Steinberg, had some similar thoughts a few months ago. After listing a mind-boggling number of commissions, departments, agencies, and programs that make up some of what our government does, Steinberg wrote:
What is Big Government?
It is our time: It is oxidizing, the aging process applied to civilization and turning us to dust. Big Government is nothing less than the consumption of our very moment here on Earth, our lives spent creating and producing. Take our works and humanity, skim from the top, then the middle until we were not here.
No man’s time is another’s to waste, not politics but morality. This stupid, stupid list is our government, and the creators of this owe an answer to their benefactors — an answer to a question neither about the politics or the theory, as none of that is relevant to the actual government that exists as people working at the above agencies, being paid from the profits, and then the principal, of civilization.
He’s right. But what do you do about it? Cutting spending doesn’t get at the root of the disease. It only treats the symptom. Unless we can confront the central question of what government should be doing, and come to some kind of rough consensus about the Leviathan’s role in American society, we are striking out blindly in an effort to tame it.
First, figure out what we want government to do, then fund it. The federal budget, as written, embodies what we think government should be doing for us. Thousands and thousands of pages of programs, services, agency budgets — $3.8 trillion that represents the hopes and aspirations of the people, as well as security, and life and livelihood to tens of millions. Incomprehensible? To a degree, yes. But the budget was not created by aliens and plopped on Obama’s desk. We created it. It’s all ours. And the idea that we can’t have a thorough and rational debate about what’s in that budget — that most of it is off limits or out of bounds — is absurd.
It’s a chimera, of course — this idea that we would ever really make the attempt to understand what government is doing and seek to define its limits or curtail its power. For many on the left, there are no limits. In the name of “social justice,” or some hazy definition of “equality,” the untrammeled growth of government is a necessity. The beast will eventually consume us because there is a sizable portion of the population that doesn’t want a rational discussion about the size or the nature of government in a free society, preferring the status quo with government spending on autopilot and the engineer asleep at the switch.