The altered terms of the political debate in America
It is the day after the 237th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. How appropriate.
Over most of our lifetimes, the terms of the political debate were centered around who would give more goodies to the American people. Human nature being what it is, most people gladly took whatever the government gave them. Few thought seriously about the coercive nature of those governmental actions and how they created new behavioral incentives that altered future outcomes, adversely impacting our political and economic liberties. The Democrats regularly won that debate against what I used to call the (former Republican minority leader in the House) Bob Michel Republicans who offered no alternative visions of liberty and the proper role of government in our lives. The Republicans lost in large part because all they stood for was Democrat-lite spending. When you can have the whole thing, why settle for a partial handout?
Then, at points during the last decade, Republicans in the White House and Congress decided to spend like drunks and do some bailouts. From a branding standpoint, the impact was significant because the differences between the two parties on domestic economic issues became largely indistinguishable. At least until Obama, Reid and Pelosi took over.
The Obama administration and Democratic Congress during the last two years made everyone else before look cheap by comparison via their massive governmental spending increases, trillion dollar deficits, unaccountable czars, aggressive regulatory actions, and governmental bailouts or takeovers of various parts of the economy – especially Obamacare.
The impact of the overreach was two-fold:
First, by trying to have the government take over control of many parts of our life via aggressively statist policies, the American people’s instinctive love of liberty arose in rebellion.
Second, the trillion dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see – together with the looming bankruptcies of Social Security, Medicare, and certain states and local governments, including their pension programs – merged with the visible consequences of similar spending/debt crises in Europe to raise the specter that there could be ultimate financial consequences to our country’s well being in the not-so-distant future that would destroy the America we know and eliminate the American Dream for our children and their children.
The net effect is that the terms of the political debate in America were fundamentally altered in recent times, culminating so far in the 2010 election results, the mandate in Obamacare being declared unconstitutional, and rejection of this week’s omnibus bill in the Senate. The debate is no longer about who can hand out more goodies. The debate is now about liberty and financial solvency.
What we don’t yet have answers to is exactly how the altered debate will translate into truly different outcomes. Will there be a modified public understanding of the proper role of government in our lives and what new government policies would be required to reflect that modified role? Or is there still enough status quo inertia that we will hurtle off a cliff and be forced to live with financial insolvency and statist public policies that continue to take away our liberty?
It is also not yet clear whether either major political party is capable of adapting to the new terms of the political debate. If they cannot, their role in national politics will be marginalized over time because the status quo is unsustainable. There will likely be much turmoil before it all settles out but I am hopeful that, as part of the oft-messy process of change, there can be a great reawakening of our body politic that helps us rediscover the true meaning of liberty and develop a deepened attachment to the limited and constitutional government principles given to us by our Founders. We all have to admit that there has never been a period during our lifetimes with more public discussion about the US Constitution and its meaning.
As lovers of liberty, our obligation is to contribute regularly to this ongoing civic debate by offering both reasoned philosophical ideas – as we seek to persuade people who are open to such exchanges – and new policies – where we are prepared to do battle in the political trenches, as necessary, to implement the ideas.
Five fundamental questions for public debate:
Question #1 – Do you believe the Constitution puts any restrictions on the powers of the federal government?
Question #2 – If your answer is yes, what restrictions would those be? And what test would you use to determine what the federal government can and can’t do?
Question #3 – If your answer is no, that is, that the Constitution puts no real restraints on the federal government at all, why do you suppose they bothered writing and passing one in the first place?
Question #4 – Do you believe there should be any restrictions on the powers of the federal government?
Question #5 – Do you buy into the idea that the people delegate certain, limited powers to the government through the Constitution, or do you believe that the government can do whatever it wants, save for a few restrictions outlined in the Constitution?