Belmont Club

The Miseducation of the First World Part 2

This article dovetails so remarkably with the previous one that the connections must be pointed out. But since updating the older post would be infeasible, it is better to discuss it in a separate article. The question is in a world of rapid change, where flexibility and creativity are at a premium, what institutions would serve America best?

At first, the question seems posed as a puzzle. How can institutions be flexible? What framework could possibly promote creativity? It turns out that the Founders, including Thomas Jefferson, had an answer. Only it became convenient for special interests make us forget what it was and destroy that framework, resulting in many of the ill-effects felt today.

That original framework was a nation of “little republics” which was chosen to create a lot of diversity and a lot of initiative. Much of that diversity has disappeared without even being noticed and unsurprisingly, so has much of the initiative and diversity.

According to Jay Matthews of the Washington Post, the number of elected school boards in America has declined from more than 80,000 in 1950 to less than 14,000 today – all the more stunning because it has happened unnoticed. It’s just so much easier to let Arne Duncan call the shots, especially when he’s willing to pay you for it.

The author, Sam Smith argues that with each passing year the Federal government has expanded its scope through the process of Greenmail, which means getting states surrender prerogatives and power — sometimes to NGOs — in exchange for Federal funding. He argues this has resulted in astounding degrees of centralization and waste. There are many things that local government does better than a huge bureaucracy in Washington.

But the greatest loss has been in freedom, which can be rephrased as the ability to proceed UNODIR — to go for it UNless Otherwise DIRected — which alone creates the conditions for creativity and initiative.  It was evident even to Jefferson that there would be the temptation to grow Washington at the expense of the states. He wrote after passage of the Constitution with its 10th Amendment that “to take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.”

Washington is now running rampant on that boundless field of power only to discover that it has fences after all, namely the limits of money. It believes that the solution to the fences is to raise the debt limit and anyone against it hasn’t heard that the Civil War is over.

But Smith argues that the architecture of devolved power has nothing to do with pre-Civil War America and everything to do with liberty, something that the Left trumpeted before it discovered the fleshpots of centralized authority. The Left was for Power to the People before it was against it. Smith writes:

The liberal media repeatedly suggests that any decentralization of power is a step back towards a Civil War definition of states rights and that opposing federal concentration is the sole purview of the reactionary right.

This is, of course, nonsense and one needs to look no further back than the left of the 1960s to find examples of a progressive approach to devolvement of power.

Now it is all the rage to disparage the little republics as hillbilly survivals, places so dark you have to pipe the sunlight in.  But the design was there from the start. It is a very simple point, but once which gets at the heart of many of the most contentious political issues discussed today.

The argument is that freedom and subsdiarity are resources, not shackles from some troglodytic past. Smith asserts that even at the founding of the United States its architects recognized the danger of allowing the development of institutions that were Too Big To Fail not only because they might become oppressive, or drag down the rest, but because their very existence would hijack the ends of society. Things that are Too Big To Fail sooner or later become like Queen Bees, the Alpha and Omega of all activity, resulting in among other things, the inability to think of anything else but servicing them.

Centralization destroys freedom. It destroys initiative. It makes everything subordinate to the survival of the great god whose monument towers to the very heavens and which exists for reasons no one can remember and yet does no one knows what. To recover freedom — and with it creativity, initiative and efficiency — it is important to remember the legacy of the Federal structure, the foundation of “little republics”.

It’s an important intellectual point.  The post Miseducation of the First World described the conflation of the means of education with its ends. The credential became the goal, rather than the byproduct of learning. Perhaps government should regarded in the same way. Just as the stoplight exists to let people move, so government might exist that people might be free. For man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.

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