To Reform Government, Reform the Culture First

Can all of America’s political problems be solved by returning to constitutional, limited government? The answer given by many conservatives and libertarians is a resounding yes. Reading the Founding Fathers, the answer would generate a more complex answer.

In the Federalist Papers, the authors dedicate considerable space to history’s failed experiments in self-government. John Adams wrote in 1798, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

What Adams suggests is the people’s character impacts our government’s character. The early generations of Americans were independent-minded folks. Help for those in need came from the church, the family, or the community. Citizens expected only a few limited functions to be performed by the state.

In 21st century America, we expect the government to provide Social Security retirement and disability, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, and Pell Grants. Parents expect their children to have a free public education through thirteen years of school.

Two tactics for dealing with this are popular. The first, the rationalistic approach, tries to challenge people with a debate about numbers and the effectiveness of government solutions. The second, the pragmatic approach, avoids taking on any popular program, other than fleeting attempts to reform Social Security. The last administration chose the latter tactic.

The pragmatic approach fails because the areas most in need of the reform are politically difficult to address. The rationalistic approach fails because it doesn’t address the culture. For example, many elderly Americans rely on Medicaid to take care of their long-term-care expenses once their net worth has dropped to nothing. The key problem here, however, is the culture that considers it acceptable for us to allow our parents to go into poverty so the government can step in.

Conservatives talk about the church and the community returning to its proper role of caring for the poor, but this effort is easier said than done. Pastors complain about the poor viewing churches as welfare agencies. Judging by donation reports, churches would be overwhelmed if they had to take on all the people dependent on the government. We cannot effect a permanent reduction in the size and scope of government, or meaningful government reform, unless we change our culture’s demand for the government to provide our every need.

Conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly identified how cultural issues impact voting with her politically incorrect declaration: “Seventy percent of unmarried women voted for Obama. And this is because, when you kick your husband out, you’ve got to have Big Brother government to be your provider.”