If there’s one thing the American political philosophy is about, it’s being in agreement on what the purpose of government is, and on what the practical meaning of our Constitution is. Government by agreement presupposes just that: agreement – and not impositions on the unwilling by a privileged “elite.”
So it is profoundly important that we’ve reached a point in our life as a nation at which we clearly are no longer in agreement on those basics.
The people are deeply divided today over what we should expect of government. Our political differences pretty much all flow ultimately from that division. What we expect of government dictates whether we think it should be limited or not, how limited we think it should be, how constrained it should be by statutory language, which aspects of life it should intervene in, and on and on through the myriad passageways of modern political thinking. These premises in turn dictate how we understand the Constitution.
We do not have a public consensus now on the basic question of what government is for.
This is why I can’t agree with conservatives who advise, after the Supreme Court’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week, that what the conservative Right needs to do is get some perspective and keep on keepin’ on.
That’s what you would do if there were a reliable consensus to keep circling back to, however long the circle’s path. The problem now is that there isn’t a reliable consensus. Too much has gone misrepresented, elided, glossed over, and completely undiscussed in public – and for too many years now.
We’ve been living for decades with the growing implications of a series of anti-liberal decisions, but without acknowledging that that’s what we’re doing. That’s why we woke up one day last week to a Supreme Court violating our bedrock traditions of governance, to declare a “right” that (a) doesn’t meet the proper definition of a right to begin with, and (b) wasn’t under assault, and didn’t need to be privileged by an appeal to the Constitution. It’s not too much to say that the SCOTUS decision on Obergefell v. Hodges was more in the nature of an occult visit from the rights fairy than an exercise in jurisprudence.
Is that what we all agree government should be doing for us? Making us feel validated by turning our sentimental aspirations into constitutional “rights”? Do we all agree that if government is doing this for us, it can do so at the price of punishing people who may not see aspiration and validation in the same way?
I think we know the answer is no. We don’t all agree on those premises. But too many conservatives haven’t come to grips with the truth: that this problem is and will be our nation’s insuperable stumbling block, if we continue refusing to confront it.
It’s not an esoteric consideration: that millions of Americans don’t have the same expectations about what government is for. It’s the very heart of our political problem today.
This is why we have to do more than passively resist the metastasizing government leviathan. Focusing on derivative and specific policy issues won’t be enough either. We’re going to have to do the hard, scary work of really looking at what we have allowed the purposes of government to become – and decide which things are unacceptable, and must have declarations made against them.
We’re going to have to decide, equally, what we do expect from government, and review whether our current Constitution and statute laws are designed, and are being faithfully executed, to deliver it.
This isn’t about people’s political hobby horses. A lot of people already have pat “answers” to our problems, like getting rid of the Federal Reserve, going on a gold standard, taking government out of the business of recognizing marriage, or adopting the five perfect amendments to the Constitution. All of these remedies think too small. If the American Founders had thought that small, we would never have gotten past 1776.
At a remove of nearly 230 years from our Constitutional Convention, there are things we simply need to relook now, from square one, in the same way our Founders did.
The homework we are due
Consider just one example: environmental issues. Political environmentalism has been on a collision course with liberty and property rights for a long time now, and it’s a huge slice of the collectivist agenda that seeks to transform the purposes of government for everyone on earth.
Most conservatives assume that there is a happy medium between collectivist environmentalism, on the one hand, and the sheriff-centric common-law perspective on property rights enunciated last year by Cliven Bundy during the standoff at his ranch.
But we have never defined that happy medium.
We have merely let the collectivist perspective encroach steadily on property rights, without updating what we expect or intend with the instruments of common law.
It’s now 2015, and what we as a people know about our environment has expanded significantly. In some instances, we deceive ourselves as to how much we actually know and control. But given that we do know more, in at least some ways, our task today should be to think about how to continue prioritizing property rights, and limiting government, while also being able to update our consensus on property-owner obligations.
We haven’t done that. We’ve let environmental collectivism own the narrative on stewardship. A better approach would be to define stewardship through property rights, in terms of the ownership obligations we agree on, and the limits we put on what government or third parties can demand of property owners.
But someone has got to do it. Either we do this thinking, and make compelling declarations about it, or the collectivist vision will just keep winning.
There are some very basic issues we need to revisit: issues like whether the approach of government should be prophylactic – i.e., seeking to anticipate and prevent problems – and whether we can afford to keep paying the social (not just the economic) price of things like intensive regulation and the income tax.
In fact, one of the chief things we need to revisit is what we want. Aside from how government fosters or protects what we want – what is it that we want? I know I want religious, intellectual, and economic liberty above all else. And I know how I define them. But I’m not confident, by any means, about the rest of you.
The truth is, we don’t all agree on the answers to these questions. We don’t ask them in public, and we go around assuming that we’re mostly on the same page. But the evidence of our policies, and the trend of our social consequences, tell us otherwise.
It won’t be easy to take on these topics. But there’s an important reason why it has to be done. Taking them on, and coming up with a positive, orderly, forward-looking view of what government should look like, is the only way to get from here to a condition of better government.
I can’t overemphasize that point. We will not get to a better future by grumbling that it’s too hard to develop a vision for one and chart a course to it. There has to be a vision. What we’re doing now isn’t working, and it’s not going to magically start working just because we wish it would. Nor will it work to confine ourselves to low-level resistance. Resistance, by definition, is reaction without vision.
What we need today is a compelling, transformative passage of the same order as our Declaration of Independence and our Constitutional Convention. There’s nothing overly heroic about this proposal. The American proposition is precisely that a people can do such work, and must do it if they are to secure to themselves the blessings of liberty.
We have a great store of well-formulated political ideas to draw from; we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But we do have to be ready to implement a vision for liberty and limited government, when the opportunity presents itself. The readiness to do that starts with recognizing that we don’t have liberty and limited government now. It then demands that we outline a vision for them.
Liberty can be eroded by stealth, but it can’t be established that way. It has to be established by declaration and purpose. We have to know what we want. We have to recognize broken-past-repairing when we see it (if psychic-hotline judicial decisions from the highest court in the land aren’t clear enough, I’m not sure I can help you). And we have to have a goal to navigate toward.
So let’s roll up our sleeves. In this time of great upheaval, we can expect great opportunity. We need to be ready for it. The dawn is coming. The greatest chapter of God-centered liberty has yet to be written.