Perusing the reader comments section that follows most online political articles these days one cannot help forming a bleak opinion of this nation’s future. The vitriolic volleys bombard from both sides of a chasm wider and deeper than perhaps at any time since the Civil War. Granted, self-selection is at work here- the extremes are probably over represented in such forums which tends to exaggerate the divide, but there is little doubt that this country is deeply polarized and our civil discourse is near an all time low. One wonders how long our Republic can survive when the motivating force animating our political discourse seems to be blind hatred. In this two part essay I intend to explore the outlines of a synthetic theory which concentrates on what I believe to be the shared goals of both sides.
Boiled to it essence, the conflict is over the role of Government, which is not coincidentally the subject matter of these essays. The organizing principle of those advocating a limited role for government is liberty, broadly defined as the absence of government coercion in the lives of its citizens. The other side is organized around the principle of social justice which requires government coercion to execute the policies necessary to achieve what is seen as an equitable redistribution of resources. Obviously there can be very little intersection in these views, which accounts for the polarization we see today. And both sides see themselves as fighting for the soul of our democracy which accounts for the vitriol of the debate.
It should be clear by now that I agree with Madisonian view that government can not be both a guarantor of our rights and an instrument of charity. The two are mutually exclusive because Collectivism, in all its forms, equates one citizen’s need to a claim on the fruits of the labor of another, an inherently immoral precept. And since men by nature feel entitled to their property, that claim must be enforced under threat of law by a Government powerful enough to make it stick. Coercive “charity” is thus antithetical to the government’s fundamental role as protector of the rights of all of its citizens and to the Founder’s view, enshrined in the Constitution, of a strictly limited federal role which emphatically eschewed any re-distributive function. How then did we arrive at the point we find ourselves today, where charity is now seen as the federal government’s primary role?
It was Woodrow Wilson who first forwarded the notion that the Constitution itself was preventing social progress. Except in academia, his ideas were largely ignored and/or rejected as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until the Great Depression finally gave Roosevelt the political capital necessary to legitimize a charitable role for the Federal government. Our political history since the New Deal has been an attempt to balance these two conflicting ideals, individual liberty and social justice. In practice this has proven a fool’s errand. As our Civil War demonstrated decisively, we cannot hold as the basis of governance, two foundational principles so fundamentally at odds, one must eventually yield to the other. We’ve avoided war this time and not surprisingly, it has been the Social Democrats who have carried the day, it being much more politically expedient to mollify the mob at the expense of the taxpayers who have become the minority.
A Democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of Government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of public treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that Democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a Dictatorship.
While the attribution of the above is uncertain, its logic seems unassailable and its prediction of “loose fiscal policy” surely has come upon us. Our massive accumulated debt, the unfunded liability of the entitlements already in place, the devaluation of our currency (which will rob our eldest of any wealth they may have managed to accumulate) and the constant clamor for more government aid all point to the unsustainability of our current system. Can the collapse it predicts be avoided? I think so, but only if we can forge a new consensus that will allow our leaders the political space to address the root issues. One that enshrines the common goals of a fair and just society which protects the liberty of all. Part II will explore the outlines such a consensus might take.