Is limited government still a viable method of governance in America?
Obama has stirred a national debate about liberty and the proper role of government – especially the meaning of limited government.
Lurking unaddressed in that debate is a key point about whether limited government, as enshrined in our Constitution, is still a viable method of governance in America.
William Voegeli raises that point in his NR review (available for a fee) of Steven Hayward’s book, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980–1989:
…Hayward shares, and deftly explicates, Reagan’s belief that opposing Communism abroad and opposing the welfare and regulatory state at home were, in fact, the same fight, the one to protect inherently tenuous liberty from vastly ambitious and, thus, vastly dangerous government. Reagan, says Hayward, insisted on “tracing a linkage between the corruption of Soviet Communism and the weakness of domestic liberalism.” That link, according to the first volume of The Age of Reagan, was “liberalism’s lack of a limiting principle.” Its absence has rendered modern American politics a contest between the adherents of limited and of unlimited government. As Hayward explains: “The premise of the administrative state is that our public problems are complicated, with ‘no easy answers,’ whose remedy requires sophisticated legislation and extensive bureaucratic management. Anyone who says otherwise (like Ronald Reagan) is a ‘simpleton.’ But the creed of the administrative state makes the idea of citizen self-government seem quaint or obsolete, and it causes our government to be remote and esoteric to average citizens.”
Last year, Sean Wilentz wrote: “It should be clear that mistakes and overreaching have hampered liberalism’s evolution.” That proposition is clear. What’s not clear, confirming the lack of a limiting principle, is what liberalism thinks its overreaching has reached over — what constraints, if any, on the government’s capacity and legitimate authority to diagnose and remedy social problems liberals are prepared to acknowledge and respect.
“Tear down this wall,” Reagan said in Berlin in 1987. Two years later, the Communists tore it down. Eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, the Republicans said in their 1980 platform. Two years — and eight years, and 29 years — later, it had only grown larger. “Reagan was more successful in rolling back the Soviet empire than he was in rolling back the domestic government empire,” writes Hayward, “chiefly because the latter is a harder problem” (emphasis in the original). It is, twice over, a startling assessment — first, because the Soviet menace seemed, for long decades, like a immutable fact that could never melt away; second, because it is indeed indisputable that the seemingly less audacious goal of curbing the size and influence of the federal establishment proved much tougher…
Actions have consequences and Obama is certainly stirring a vivid national debate on these issues.
Will liberty – expressed in the form of limited government – regain traction as a fundamental principle in America and triumph in this current debate?