April 19, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
On Wednesday last in his speech at George Washington University, President Obama observed that Americans are engaged in “one of the most important debates we can have.” It is specifically a debate about “the size and role of government,” but more generally, in the President’s words, it is about “the kind of country that we believe in.” He almost begins to sound like an Ohio Farmer! But seriously, it seems to me that the President is right about this and that it behooves us to take him and his words seriously—and to expect him to take himself seriously. This is not a time for sound bites and talking points, when words, as we all know is so often the case, are wielded as mere partisan weapons or are uttered to be forgotten.
The President tells us that he wants to “keep the dream of our founding alive” and “pass it on to our children.” He invites Americans to be “patriotic,” to have a “sense of responsibility—to each other and to our country.” This all sounds pretty appealing—where is the debate? I think we find it in what the President means by this “sense of responsibility.”
Americans, he says, have always “put faith in free markets and free enterprise”; “we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.” Amen. But, he adds immediately, America is also a country with federal programs “which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work . . . [protect] us against unexpected job loss . . . [and provide] care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, [and] those with disabilities.” America, he takes great trouble to emphasize, “would not be a great country without these commitments.”
It is in these “commitments” that the President locates our “responsibility” as citizens. He would enlist our patriotism in upholding these commitments, without which he thinks America would not be great. Here, to speak plainly, the President’s “vision for America” (as he calls it) departs radically and self-consciously from the Founders’ America and from all of American history until America was transformed by the New Deal and the Great Society beyond anything the Founders would recognize. In the President’s vision, it is the New Deal and the Great Society that made America great, made it the kind of country he believes in.
All Americans are aware that decent medical care, good jobs, comfortable homes, and college educations are widely desired, and that countries are generally regarded as successful when, like America, they manage to make such desired things widely available. But all Americans also know that the Founders never supposed that the federal government should “guarantee” these and countless other social and economic goods as “rights” or “entitlements.” It was the great triumph of the New Deal, extended by the Great Society, to establish these widely desired things as a new kind of rights—rights created by the state—as part of what Franklin Roosevelt called a “new constitutional order.”
None of these New Deal or Great Society “rights” was obtained by actually amending the Constitution. They were assertions of what Progressives think of as the “living constitution,” that is a constitution that is subject to continual change as leaders with “vision” see where the path of Progress leads. In this Progressive notion of a living constitution there is practically no limit to the “size and role of government.”
So successful have the Progressives been that hardly anyone in either party batted a law-abiding eye at the constitutionally shocking financial bailouts and rewriting of the bankruptcy law in just the past few years. The very idea of the rule of law disappears in the shadow of the living constitution. This is why supporters of the President’s health care plan have reacted with stunned incredulity when asked where in the Constitution is the authority to enact such a plan. This is also why it is a substantial—though very incomplete—political victory just to raise that question. The great debate is between defenders of the Constitution and advocates of the living constitution, which renders the Constitution meaningless. The question of the size and role of government will be decided by the more fundamental debate.
Since the President raises the subject, is it really these New Deal commitments that make America great? Or would America enable itself to recover some of its greatness if it could free itself somewhat from the shackles of these commitments? These “commitments” teach an increasing number of Americans to wake every day looking to the federal government to take care of their basic needs and angrily resenting their country and their fellow citizens if they don’t get what they want in a hurry. President Obama invites us to celebrate this dependency as our greatness. In his “vision,” the more power we give the federal government—the more Americans are made dependent on the federal government—the greater we are as a people and a country. There is much willfulness in that vision. These Progressive “rights” and “entitlements” teach Americans, very successfully, to think of themselves as organized interests—according to their jobs, race, gender, age, infirmities, and so on—interest groups clamoring incessantly for government to use its power over other citizens to better secure the “rights” of the interests. Is this a “sense of responsibility” that a great country could take pride in?