This is the first in a series of 6 articles examining the issues and questions raised in Edwin Feulner and Doug Wilson’s book Getting America Right. Each article will examine one of the six questions the authors think we should be asking of every piece of legislation being considered by Congress.
The six questions can be found in my review of the book here.
How can it be determined if a proposed piece of legislation is the business of government?
The question is deceptively simple. For contained in that interrogatory is the confluence of government and politics. It highlights the clash of desire and necessity. It defines what kind of a people we want to be. And the answer to it is the permanent divide between liberals and conservatives.
A good starting point for looking at the history of the growth of what has been the “government’s business” would be the Civil War. It was here that “the arm of the federal government first reached out and tapped the ordinary citizen on the shoulder” as Bruce Catton put it when the great Civil War historian wrote about the first national draft in American history. Up until that time, the closest that the overwhelming majority of American citizens came to dealing with the federal government was in mailing a letter. Now the government in Washington could bypass the state and local government and affect the life of the individual American citizen directly.
The Draft Riots in New York city as well as in other places were not entirely the result of this radical measure taken by Lincoln to supply the northern army with much needed troops. In New York especially, there was a nasty element of racism and class involved. The government allowed that a draftee could purchase an exemption for the sum of $300. This amount was far beyond the means of most poor people. Couple that with a simmering resentment against free blacks among the almost equally oppressed Irish and the occasion of the draft simply supplied the kindling for a conflagration that killed hundreds.
But the very thought that the government in Washington could affect the life of the individual American was so radical that even supporters of the Conscription Act hastened to assure people that this was a wartime measure only and that such power granted the federal government would be taken away once the emergency had passed. Such was pretty much the case until the progressive movement burst upon the American political scene in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The existence of the progressive movement was a testament to the American belief in the perfectibility of society. Progressives believed that by applying scientific principles to government and couple it with technological progress, all of the ills afflicting society could be cured. The “March of Progress” was on and the government juggernaut began to role. Income taxes, business regulation, and an alphabet soup of new agencies and departments in the Executive Branch to deal with the new spirit of government intervention all came to pass even before the Great Depression.
It was Roosevelt’s New Deal, born out of dire necessity occasioned by a starving, nearly bankrupt country that finally placed the federal government at the forefront of radical intervention in the lives of individual citizens. With the massive expansion of public works and other measures like Social Security, the depression era federal government was for the first time taking on responsibilities that most Americans up to that time had reserved for themselves, their families, and their communities.
World War II brought unparalleled interference by government as rationing proved to be the most intrusive program ever enacted, telling people how much of a commodity one was entitled to and when they could buy it. And the War Planning Board was able to dictate to corporations what they could make and how much simply by controlling the supply of raw materials. Steel for washing machines was out. But if you wanted to make tanks, that was a different story.
In the immediate post war years, even though direct government control of the economy had been ceded, the left sought to influence both economic and social policy using incentives in the tax code to affect change. The result was an ever-expanding role of government in the decision making of average Americans.
The 1950’s saw no slackening to the pace of interference as a host of new agencies were born and the government entered the highway building business in earnest as the Interstate Highway System began to spread its ribbons of concrete across the country. Fueled by a gas tax, the building of the national interstate system could be considered one of the most necessary and successful government programs in history. What it has become in recent years is a repository for pork barrel politics and wasteful spending.
The explosion of social services offered by government in the 1960’s and 70’s altered the landscape of American society forever as we are still dealing with the consequences of many of these destructive programs that fostered dependency, hopelessness, and the break-up of millions of families. The addition of several executive departments such as CPSC, EPA, and the Departments of Energy and Education spread the influence of government until it touched every aspect of American life and commerce.
The 1980’s to the present has seen the growth of the corporate lobbying industry whose goal is simple; wrest as much money from the federal government as possible through tax breaks, incentives, and even direct grants. Giant companies whose only need of government is to help them destroy competition or fatten up the bottom line now feed at the federal trough with impunity.
I felt this short history of the growth of government was necessary if only to illustrate a simple point; it doesn’t have to be this way. And Messrs. Feulner and Wilson argue that it was our failure to ask that simple question “Is it the Government’s Business” that has gotten us into this mess in the first place.
When asking that question, we can obviously answer in the affirmative when it comes to national defense. We can also say with a reasonable amount of certainty that it probably isn’t a good thing to have 50 different standards for air and water quality. It is probably necessary to have some kind of a national social safety net involving programs that fill elementary human needs like food and shelter (the authors believe that such programs could better be handled by “state governments, neighbors, family, and local churches” which is true but unrealistic in that most poor people are cut off from society because of government dependence). Given time, there are probably dozens of areas where even a conservative could answer “yes” to the question at hand such as regulation of the stock market, anti-trust protections, and other measures designed to prevent us from returning to the turn of the 20th century when corporate trusts held sway over government and politics.
From my point of view, the question is not trying to create a “small” government which is, I believe, and impossibility in a 21st century industrialized democracy of nearly 300 million people. Rather, by asking if a law or regulation is the government’s business, we can certainly make government “smaller” thus making people and companies more self-reliant and give them more control over their own destiny.
The authors believe that “government bureaucracies are no match for the speed, creativity, and innovation that privately based free marketeers bring to problem solving” which is certainly true up to a point. The recent experiment in privately owned prisons is a good example. While praised for cost-effectiveness, the facilities have been cited for everything from poor nutritional programs to substandard rehabilitation efforts involving remedial education and job training. And studies have shown that recidivism rates are higher from these privately run prisons than from state and federal facilities (although many argue that there simply isn’t enough data yet to make those kind of determinations).
At bottom, what the question “Is it the government’s business” does is force us to keep decision making about what is best for society as close to the grass roots as possible. Would this engage the interest of a larger proportion of Americans in politics and government? And if it didn’t, wouldn’t that mean that the same activists who now drive the political agenda would be the only ones who seek to answer that question?
It’s my belief that even if we can only marginally affect legislation and regulation by asking that question every time a law is proposed, it would improve our lives. For that reason alone, the question should be enthusiastically embraced by the Republican party and especially Republican candidates for office.