This review originally appears in The American Thinker
NOTE: Mark Tapscott of the Heritage Foundation was kind enough to send me a free copy of Edwin Feulner and Doug Wilson’s new book Getting America Right in exchange for reviewing it on my site. It should go without saying (although given all the criticism of blogs lately from several mainstream media sources I’ll say it anyway) Mr. Tapscott had no input into this review whatsoever. The words and sentiments are my own.
When it comes to diagnosing what’s wrong with America and offering solutions on how to cure what ails us, there is no shortage of thoughtful, sincere opinions on both the right and the left that offer specific courses of action to address the nation’s problems. In fact, an entire literary industry is devoted to this peculiarly American genre of government improvement manuals. Ideas on repairing American democracy run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime. Books by radio talk show hosts, comedians, celebrities, and self-improvement gurus can be found alongside the learned tomes of intellectuals, university faculty, and the baker’s dozen of major think tanks whose prescriptions for solving our problems are usually a combination of wishful thinking and mind-numbing complexity.
This drive to improve government is a clear offshoot of our drive for self-improvement, a trait that has piqued the curiosity of American observers from de Tocqueville to Churchill. De Tocqueville especially was fascinated with this aspect of the American mind, saying ” The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.â€ The Frenchman marveled at our obsession with self improvement and attributed much of the vitality of American society to this singular characteristic.
Perhaps that’s why I liked Getting America Right so much. At bottom, the book is a joyous recognition of American exceptionalism; the fierce belief that despite seemingly insurmountable problems, the individual genius of American citizens can be brought to bear with results that have always astonished.
The idea of America as a wholly unique national entity has taken enormous hits in recent years from leftists in academia and liberal political pundits who have sought to superimpose a veneer of European ideas over the American experiment in self-government on everything from law to health care. Of course, this would have come as a shock to our Founders who did everything they could when writing the Constitution and forming our government to distance themselves from what they saw as the corruptive influences of nobility and the European traditions of monarchical tyranny. Coupled with similar attacks on the ideas of “natural rights” and “higher law,” American exceptionalism as a driving intellectual force has been in danger of being relegated to the dusty, disorganized national attic where we are storing other quaint, 19th century American peculiarities like self-reliance and self-restraint.
Authors Edwin Feulner who is President of the the Heritage Foundation and Doug Wilson, Chairman of Townhall.com have written a good book, perhaps an important book that is both eminently readable and thought provoking in diagnosing America’s problems and offering common sense, “bottom up” solutions. Using a combination of jaw clenching examples of the most horrific government waste imaginable and the inspiring stories of average citizens and local governments addressing some of our seemingly intractable problems in education, dependency, and federal overreach, the authors have succeeded in correctly identifying key areas where conservative values could be applied most efficaciously.
The problem however is not necessarily in the specific solutions being offered by Messrs. Feulner and Wilson but in what is at the core of their critique of America and their refutation of the welfare state: That in order to affect the kind of changes envisioned by the authors, nothing less than a revolutionary revision of the American people’s relationship with government would have to take place.
Can this be achieved? Considering that Americans are as susceptible to the natural proclivity of the human species to take the easy course when offered a choice between the hard slog of self-reliance and the soothing path of letting others make difficult personal decisions, it would seem a daunting task to make the kind of changes that would be necessary to enact most of the solutions offered in the book.
As the authors correctly point out, the American people have become addicted to government solutions for problems that their grandparents and even their parents would have solved themselves or with the help of their friends and neighbors. And lest anyone think that our major problems only involve welfare cheats and Medicare defrauders, Feulner and Wilson offer many eye opening examples of multinational corporations and other rich entities feeding unabashedly at the federal trough. The fact that we allow Congress to get away with this kind of tomfoolery goes to the very heart of what’s wrong with America today. We are sleepwalking our way to disaster. In this respect, the book is a wake-up call as much as it is a blueprint for change.
While not totally responsible for the kinds of budgetary shenanigans described by the authors, there is nevertheless a great conundrum in conservative governance that I wish the authors would have addressed more directly. Modern conservatism was an ideology born in a politically inferior position to liberalism. It’s strengths have always been in the logical way it is dismantled the intellectual underpinnings of the welfare state. But knocking the chocks from underneath the left’s cherished beliefs is one thing; actually governing a 21st century industrialized democracy is another.
The fact is, conservatism is suffering from the transition to majority status in that it is hard to be anti-government when you are, in fact, the government. The corrupting influence of Capitol Hill and the sybaritic culture inside the Beltway have led many erstwhile conservatives to abandon long held principles in order to fit in with the “get along, go along” culture of Washington. That, and the pragmatic realization that the American people may talk a good conservative game, but when it comes to improving the quality of their own lives or protecting their own benefits, they look to their Congressman to do the job. In short, many conservatives in Congress appear to have decided that fighting the system does not lead to longevity in politics. Better to go with the flow and become a careerist rather than rock the boat and risk losing what you have.
This is a cynicism that Messrs. Feulner and Wilson dance around throughout the book but never quite address. And that’s because they have opted instead to advocate for solutions that involve we the people rather than the Congress (in most cases). But as the authors point out, “[S]ocial power is a zero sum game: When governments take it, individuals lose it.” Wresting power from the powers that be is a dispiriting task. It remains to be seen whether or not the kind of reforms being offered by the authors are amendable to the real world struggles that would ensue between citizens and their government over who controls.
That said, the book does very well on a variety of levels. The authors have done a remarkable job in annunciating conservative values and principles and how they relate to American society. Defining the core beliefs of conservatism as “a set of beliefs that prize moderation, reflective tradition and reason; it cherishes the old and valued even as it produces new solutions,” is not only a classical recitation of conservative values but a recognition that modern conservatism, despite all, is still a churning cauldron that spews out a great many ideas and solutions to any number of challenges facing America today.
The authors also speak of conservatism as a “shared moral order” that “respects human dignity, inculcates decency, overcomes fear, and inspires people to help each other in times of trouble.” This is a side of conservatism I wish more people would see in that the mostly successful war waged against this “moral order” by the left has had so many deleterious consequences – dependency, a loss of civility in discourse at all levels of society, and a general decline in both manners and morals – that getting back to some level of sanity with regard to a reasoned and sober civil society will be a revolution in and of itself.
The book also succeeds in clearly delineating what constitutes good government. The authors accomplish this by applying a test involving 6 questions that should be asked of every law, every government program and regulation that is being considered:
1. Is it the government’s business?
2. Does it promote self-reliance?
3. Is it responsible?
4. Does it make us prosperous?
5. Does it make us safer?
6. Does it unify us?
Each question has a chapter devoted to discussion, examples, and solutions. This format succeeds as both a logical place to start a discussion of such intractable problems and as a way to measure the potential success or failure of many of the common sense solutions offered.
The book does not succeed as well in recognizing the systemic problems with the federal budget and Congress itself, although promoting the idea of a line item veto is mentioned. The problem there is the almost certain challenge to its constitutionality in Congress. What would our reborn Supreme Court think of a law that the Founders would probably have thought a usurpation of power granted specifically to the People’s House? That’s a question that will probably not be answered any time soon.
All told, Feulner and Wilson have written a timely, thoughtful, and intellectually satisfying book that offers a wealth of solutions to problems many conservatives have either thrown up their hands in dismay at ever solving or simply brushed off with the empty critique that such challenges would go away if only we “reduced the size of government.” I am very glad that the authors offered much more specificity than the hollow, generalized rants that pass for critiques of the welfare state by less serious lights in the conservative movement. If nothing else, the book proves that conservatism is alive and well and is still seeking answers to the basic question of how people in a free society can best govern themselves.
Getting America Right is such a finely written and richly textured book that I am going to write a series of 6 more articles over the next 6 days that address each of the 6 questions asked by the authors about whether or not a specific law meets the standards set by conservatives for good government.
I invite serious discussion on both the book and my take on it from both the left and right but be warned; troll droppings will be deleted mercilessly.