October 27th, 2010 // 2:06 pm @ Oliver DeMille
In a recent article I asked “Is government broken??”
The simple answer is yes. Few people have confidence anymore in the likelihood of either political party fixing our nation’s problems. Nor does even a majority of our society believe that any of our major institutions–Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court–can really fix things. We’ve lost confidence in public leaders on all sides.
But the fundamental structural problem behind many of our problems is that America today is too big to be effectively governed by Washington.
One result of this is our inability to face and overcome our greatest challenges in timely and efficient ways. Ironically, this is likely the first thing the founding generation would notice about our government.
But today, a serious discussion about size is either entirely absent from the debate or, if brought up on occasion, quickly discounted as a quaint historical footnote.
Freedom requires certain structures and ingredients, just like any other result that can envisioned, planned and implemented.
The American founders understood freedom at levels rarely matched in all of history before or since: We should learn from the founding tutorials, and neither ignore nor discount their wisdom.
While new challenges often require new solutions, it is also true that little progress occurs without building on the successes of the past.
And even more importantly, the fundamental principles that govern freedom do not change.
Repairing Our Faults
Every nation faces major challenges. And, just like in individual human lives, such challenges are recurring.
The great genius of any nation is not its strengths (which can be easily lost), resources (which can be misused in myriad ways), or traditions (which can be ignored, changed or simply forgotten).
The great genius of a society–if it can be said that it has genius–is in its ability to quickly and effectively overcome the challenges that inevitably arise.
Speaking of the source of America’s greatness in Democracy in America, Tocqueville said this:
“…not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”[i]
We are broken to the exact extent that attempts to fix our problems are generally bogged down, ineffective, weak, or, as in so many cases, actually worsen the problems. Using this standard, our government is broken indeed.
Granted, it could be worse, and we are all thankful for the successes that are achieved (and there are more than the critics usually admit).
But there are still far too many failures, and the sense that things are broken and getting worse is increasing among many Americans.
Of course, the situation is complex and no simple answers can account for all our challenges.
But when basic principles are ignored or rejected, and when the very foundations of success in free society are not applied, it is vital to fix the big things first.
The Basics of Freedom
Nothing is more relevant right now than the fact that America is too big to govern from Washington. This is the elephant in the room, no matter how much today’s politicians want to discount it.
The founders considered America too big to be governed by Washington in 1789! In fact, one of the major anti-federalist arguments against adopting the Constitution was this very point.
There were roughly 3 million Americans at that point, and the founders worried that this was too many for Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court to effectively lead.
With around 300 million citizens today, why do we seem to think that Washington should be able to fix all our major problems? What is it the founders understood about freedom and government that we don’t seem to grasp?
James Madison answered the questions of the anti-federalists who thought America was too big for a federal government by telling the American founding generation simply that the Federal government wouldn’t be governing them.[ii]
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Let’s back up and understand the principle of governance as it relates to geographical and population sizes.
First, regarding geography, Madison said in Federalist 14 that democracies and republics have natural limits to how large a territory they can govern.
This is one reason, he argued, that the founders established the United States as a republic instead of a pure democracy.
The size of any democracy is limited to a territory small enough that all the citizens can easily assemble together and conduct the business of society in person.
In contrast, in a republic the people send their representatives. The citizens maintain small democracies in their local areas, where all adults participate, and they send elected representatives to assemble and do the business that cannot be handled at the local level.
Because of this, republics can be much larger than democracies.
In our day, given the advantages of modern transportation and communication technologies, a republic large in geographical boundaries is certainly viable and can still follow the principles of freedom.
Population, however, presents an altogether different challenge.
Regarding the ideal numerical size of a nation, the founders adopted Montesquieu’s view. Baron de Montesquieu was frequently quoted during the founding–in fact only the Bible was quoted more often.[iii]
And, indeed, Montesquieu was quoted more than any other source, including the Bible, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.[iv]
In fact, it was Montesquieu who suggested the concepts of three branches of government, each separate and independent, and of checks and balances between each. He taught the founders the most important constitutional forms.
But there is a principle of freedom that is even more basic than three branches, separations of power, and checks and balances. Montesquieu wrote:
“If a republic is small, it is destroyed by a foreign force; if it is large, it is destroyed by internal vice.”[v]
By size here he is referring to population, and by internal vice he means not crime but rather corrupt political leaders, conflicting political parties, and a political system that is unable to overcome major challenges due to internal strife.
This concept is one of the most basic foundations of the American republic: Small republics are destroyed by foreign forces, while large republics are destroyed by internal political corruption.
In republics with only a few people, the population is neither collectively strong nor wealthy enough to protect itself from foreign aggression. And where the population is very numerous, there are more who will engage in corrupt practices.
At the same time, in a more populous nation, those who corruptly exert power and manipulate influence find it easier to hide their agendas from the regular citizens.
Constitution Writing 101
The American framers set out to establish a government that would overcome both of these problems.
They didn’t want to be destroyed by foreign forces, so they didn’t want a small republic. Neither did they want to be destroyed by internal vice, so they didn’t want a large republic.
What to do? The answer is perhaps the single most basic principle of structuring American freedom. They did what Montesquieu suggested:
“…it is very likely that ultimately men would have been obliged to live forever under the government of one alone [either weak small government or large corrupt government] if they had not devised a kind of constitution that has all the internal advantages of republican government [e.g. small, uncorrupt, free] and the external force of monarchy [strong, secure]. I speak of the federal republic.”[vi]
The founders thus set up two governments working together, a federal government and the state level of government. This is a basic principle of American history and is taught in nearly any elementary course on government.
Unfortunately, this is so basic that we have for the most part become arrogant about it. We have discounted and forgotten how central this is to freedom. We think of it (if at all) in elementary terms rather in the deep way discussed in Federalist Papers 10, 14, and 18 through 20.
Here’s the kicker, the thing which gets lost in our complex and modernized world, the vital key which holds a real answer for our modern challenges: The federal government was set up for one thing: to keep us from being destroyed by a foreign force. Period. And the states were set up to do pretty much everything else we needed government to do.
In fact, the major purpose of the states was to remain small enough and close enough to the people that their governments could not become internally corrupt.
To summarize: the primary role of the federal government is to keep us safe from foreign attacks and the primary role of the state level of government is to protect us from federal government encroachments on our lives.
When the federal government does more than this basic role, we are living in a large republic and the nature of government will always be corrupt, ineffective and dangerous to freedom.
When this happens, the most primary role of state government is to stop the federal government. No other duty of state government is nearly this important.
This is why our government is broken today–inefficient, gluttonous in spending, over-reaching in many facets of our lives, big, bloated, bureaucratic, divided by angrily opposed parties which block important progress, non-transparent, secretive, and unable to change seemingly regardless of who gets elected.
When challenges arise, solutions are weak, ineffective and costly. They often magnify rather than solve problems.
This all goes back to the most basic principles of freedom:
- Rule One of freedom is that the people must be active, involved and wise overseers of all government.
- Rule Two is that small nations are weak and easily destroyed by foreign aggression so they should combine into a federal republic that keeps them safe.
- Rule Three is that large nations are destroyed by internal vice and political corruption, so any federal republic must be divided into smaller state-level republics which handle nearly all of the governance (except national security).
- The Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Rules deal with three branches of government, separations of power, and checks and balances.
We have utterly forgotten rules one and three. And to a large extent, the federal government has become distracted from rule two by its many other areas of focus.
Twenty Specific Powers
Let me be clear, however, that the point is not that government isn’t needed.
The founding model is not at all anti-government. It strongly advocates a powerful, strong, well-funded, effective federal government whose almost sole purpose is national security. It also encourages powerful, strong, well-funded, effective state governments which take care of all the legitimate needs of society that are best accomplished by the government sector.
To all this, the principles of freedom add this warning: if the federal government ever becomes widely involved in much more than national security, it will create an inefficient, corrupt, unwieldy government and freedom will decrease.
Likewise if the state governments ever lose their strength and become mere appendages of the federal government.
If this sounds too extreme, remember that Montesquieu’s word was “destroy.” As he said, large republics are “destroyed by internal vice.”
At our peril do we assume that he was careless in his choice of words. And as Madison wrote, the solution to all this is for the federal government to be limited to only the specific, numbered powers clearly outlined in the Constitution.[vii]
These twenty powers are listed in Article I, and as long as the federal government remains limited in scope to these powers we will all be living under small (state) republics with a strong (national) defense.
This is exactly what the founders wanted, and it is the freest of all the options for government.
Some might argue that this all breaks down since the states today are much bigger in population than the entire nation at the time of the founding.
But this misses the point that there is more to the definitions of “small” and “large” than just numbers.
At the state levels, there are many more representatives per capita than at the federal level, to the point that nearly every citizen has easy access to a state representative.
Beyond that, if the scope of the federal government were limited to the twenty powers given by the Constitution — if it were indeed fundamentally dedicated to national security and little beyond that — then citizens would have limited need to contact their national representatives.
The number of needed and even desired contacts would shrink to the point that every citizen seeking direct access to his federal representative would usually be granted. And as the number of contacts with state representatives increased accordingly, the number of districts would naturally be augmented.
The people would be closer to all their representatives on all levels. This is the essence of what Montesquieu, Madison and the other founders called “small” government. This was Madison’s response to the worries of the anti-federalists.
At the same time, the focus on only the 20 constitutional powers at the federal level would increase the ability of federal officials to deal with truly national problems. This is the essence of “large” government.
The more mundane issues of society would be handled at the state and local levels, with increased numbers of representatives as required to effectively cover the needs (and increased connection to the people, as stated above).
The founders felt so strongly about this that when they outlined the Bill of Rights they wrote in the Tenth Amendment:
“The powers not delegated to the United States [federal government] by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
In short, government is broken because it isn’t following the Constitution. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone.
Some might feel that all this has been decided long ago, that we have moved beyond the era of original intent in applying the Constitution and that the federal government now does thousands of things beyond the twenty powers outlined in the Constitution.
Moreover, they will say, this is what the American people want.
I do not dispute any of this, but let’s all be clear that these very changes in our society are the root and main reason that our government is so often ineffective, unwieldy, expensive, intrusive and simultaneously impotent to solve the major problems of our time.
As long as government itself is broken, we can’t really expect it to fix the other problems in our world.
The amazing thing is how well it actually does! Given that the foundations are cracked, that we are living under a larger government than Montesquieu or Madison or Jefferson ever came close to predicting, it is surprising just how much good is accomplished in America every day–by private citizens and groups but also by government.
Dedicated, caring, wise and hard-working public servants in government, and from all political parties, deserve the same kind of praise that our society rightly gives to excellent teachers, firemen, peace officers, soldiers and other who sacrifice for the greater good.
Still, until we fix the foundations, we are unlikely to see an era of successful, efficient, effective and free government ahead.
Challenges will arise, grow and fester, and as more and more problems pile on without being fixed, the load on government and the cost to citizens will increase.
Happily, there are solutions, though they too often are found in dusty volumes long undervalued. When a new generation begins to study and apply these solutions and others like them, we will see a new era of freedom, prosperity and progress.
Specifically, how do we address the problem of being too big for central governance from Washington? We really only have two options.
The famous economist Thomas Malthus callously argued that when nations become too big the natural result is war or pandemic–which has the side effect of reducing the population. Unfortunately, this concept has proven true in a number of cases through history.
So has the old maxim that nations which govern inefficiently and ineffectively either collapse from within in or are conquered from without.
Our modern arrogance in thinking these things can’t happen to us is actually part of the package that causes nations to fall–this has happened repeatedly in history, from ancient Israel, Athens and Rome to most recently the Soviet Union.
Whenever a nation gets so big and powerful that it becomes convinced it cannot fall, that is the very time that its status begins to crumble. History is quite adamant on this point. Western examples include Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Athens, Carthage, Rome, Prussia, Spain, Portugal, and Britain, among others.
But there is another option.
While it is true that nearly all great powers have fallen, usually because of inner decay caused by being too big in the center, the American founders taught us another way.
By voluntarily returning power to the states, vesting in them Constitutional authority to handle most of the needs of society (while maintaining national defense at the federal level), we could revitalize American strength and freedom at the most basic levels.
When great sports teams begin to struggle, wise coaches and managers take the players back to mastering the basics. When the fundamentals are solid and sound, these teams win a lot and often regain their earlier status.
Americans today need a return to the basics.
The regular people need to be overseers of the government, not vice versa, and the federal and state governments need to return to their constitutional roles.
We can fix ourselves from within, by returning to the most basic principles upon which freedom is based, or we can wait for inner corruption or international aggression, or a combination of both, to run its course.
We will eventually be forced to get big government under control, and we can do it either by wise choices now or by suffering the loss of blood in our young men and women in the years ahead…
[i] Tocqueville,Democracy in America, Volume 1, Chapter XIII
[ii] Federalist 14
[iii] Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” American Political Science Review, 1984. Cited in John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution
[v] Montesquieu,The Spirit of the Laws, Cambridge University Press, translated by Cohler, Miller and Stone, 1997 reprint, page 131
[vii] Federalist 14.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.