There are a number of local political issues that have arisen recently as we prepare for our Senate District Conventions and the primary at the end of May, and I intend to address those soon. But, as most conservatives’ attention will be turned this week to the unprecedented three-day oral argument before the United States Supreme Court, I want to focus this post on some of the larger potential consequences of a Supreme Court decision in that case.
We all know that the case being argued this week should decide, at a minimum, the future of the individual mandate contained in “Obamacare,” and thereby address the federal government’s power to mandate actions by citizens, generally, and specifically under its authority to regulate interstate commerce (that is, if the Court does not decide to duck the issue by basing its ruling on a threshold procedural issue). But, if the Court does reach the merits of the case and decides the constitutionality of the mandate, its decision will necessarily have a far greater impact on the future path we take as a nation than I think anyone has discussed to date.
Many people, including me, have been saying that our country is at a “tipping point” or a “fork in the road,” as we’ve gotten closer to the 2012 election cycle, and we’ve identified a lot of issues that have brought us to this point. Almost all of these discussions have dealt with specific historical decisions and programs and how to correct for the mistakes we have made. These discussions by their very nature have focused on the actions we’ve taken over the past few decades (even the past century), and actions that need to be taken over the next few years and decades. However, I think we have arrived at an intersection between the past and the future that is far larger than what we have discussed—I think what is at stake is the future course and continuity of Western history.
Because what I just wrote may seem a tad over-wrought, I will digress for a moment.
There are four concepts and trends that have guided the course of Western history for several millennia:
- The concept that “no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” is a fundamental principle for the maintenance of any human society—in fact, the human relationships that create and sustain any society cannot exist without a recognition of the truth of this principle—and, as John Donne noted long ago, it is a formative principle of Western society, too;
- The concept of liberty as the rights and responsibilities of an individual freed from the control of an anointed elite or state, arose in Greece, was nurtured during the Roman Republic, was clarified as a gift from God by Christ, became a guiding principle for the progress of the West since the Crucifixion, and became a living principle for the settlement that would become the United States and for the unique society that would flourish here;
- The concept of federalism, which was a unique experiment in governmental structure created by the Founders of our country, recognized that liberty would be secured (in part) by limiting the power and responsibility of the national government to truly national and international issues, that most issues involving the daily lives of citizens were by their nature local, and that those local issues would be addressed through the local relationships of individuals and regulated (if at all) by their local and state governments; and
- As we have passed through the industrial and technological revolutions since the Enlightenment, men and women of different backgrounds and nationalities have interacted with each other on a more routine basis, thereby expanding the number and scope of national and international issues that come within the sphere of power and responsibility of national governments to address.
As our national and international activities have increased, Americans have changed the way we view and define our guiding principles. Joining with a European intellectual and political culture that emerged first in France in the last decades of the 18th Century, we seldom, if ever, see ourselves as part of local relationships of families, neighborhoods and organizations, who seek and sustain freedom from government. Instead, as Robert Nisbet tried to explain over the course of his career, and as Robert Putnam and Charles Murray have noted in their different research, we have slowly evolved into a society in which we covet freedom from our families, our neighbors, our churches, our communities—from all those relationships that allowed us to be free from government—and in so doing, have re-defined liberty to mean being autonomous from others. In essence, we now seek to maintain the oxymoron of a society where every man and women is an island onto themselves. In fact, we have been transforming nations with societies into places where autonomous individuals live and work.
But to maintain such autonomy, we’ve had to turn to some relationship to provide for needs that are larger than we can provide for ourselves—and in so, doing we’ve increasingly turned to government. And, as we’ve turned to government, we’ve further re-defined liberty to mean being autonomous from everybody and everything, except an anointed elite or the state they control. Therefore, we’ve turned the original understanding of liberty on its head.
European governments could be more easily adapted to fit this new role for the state and its anointed elite, because they had not been structured with independent sovereign entities between the national government and its “subjects.” For centuries, monarchies, or other elites, controlled the privileges and actions of their subjects. As these governments became more democratic, the sphere of their power and responsibility did not have to be radically changed to provide for the needs of their new “citizens.” This difference between the structure of European society and government and American society and government was one of the significant observations that de Tocqueville drew from his travels in America.
Simply put, our American national government was not structured to fill the role of the local community (and its attempt to do so is bankrupting all of us—publicly and privately—and even in Europe). To accommodate the new demand on our government, we had to re-define what constituted a national issue—from an issue that could not be regulated solely by one state or locality, or that directly affected the nation as a whole, to any issue that could be statistically measured with a national calculation. So, the wheat crop one lone farmer grew became a national issue, because it was part of the entire volume of wheat grown across the country; the volume of wheat grown by all farmers across the country could be statistically measured and analyzed; such aggregate measurements and analyses could be shown to form or affect a percentage of our national economic activity; and the national government should have the power to regulate activity affecting our national economy.
We, then, expanded this rationale to the point that it no longer withstands the scrutiny of common sense. For instance, the preservation of a family of frogs in a pond in West Texas, or of a covey of quail in Montana can become national issues requiring national action, because we have a general concern about the future extinction of animal species across the country. Ultimately, some of us now believe that our national government can and should involve itself in our decisions as to when and why we will visit a doctor down the street, the relationship we form with our doctors for diagnoses and treatments, and how we choose to pay for the services our doctors provide.
For most of the 20th Century, this re-definition of what constituted a national issue was justified by many liberals because of the changes going on across the “modern world.” As we became more mobile in our economic lives—moving from state to state, working and traveling by rail and air across the continent, and communicating and working across the globe—more national and international issues arose requiring the involvement of our national government. Many political leaders of both parties saw these trends as also justifying a broader reach into what had traditionally been local individual and community issues. The culmination of this trend has been the unprecedented assertion of federal executive and legislative authority over traditionally local or individual actions since the last months of 2008.
However seductive the thinking may have been that led us to this point, it was wrong—the trends that required greater national involvement in interstate and international activities did not require greater national involvement in local activities, and it did not justify the intrusion of the federal government into the sphere of individual and local responsibility upon which our society was based. It was a fallacy that is now haunting us, and will haunt the arguments before the Supreme Court this week.
So, what does all of this mean in the context of the case before the Supreme Court?
If the mandate is struck down, the Supreme Court will have to re-assert that there is a limit to the role of the national government in our local relationships. With such a limit re-asserted, we conservatives have an opportunity to begin to re-align the spheres of power and responsibilities across society, in order to re-establish the local relationships between individuals in communities that federalism preserved and protected. With that re-establishment, we have a chance to re-teach our children the real meaning of liberty, and that they are not islands but members of greater communities of free people with responsibilities as well as rights. With that new foundation, we can re-build the American experiment as a beacon for the 21st Century world our children and grandchildren will inherit. At a more concrete level, with that re-construction we can retake control of our public policy and finances at every level of government.
However, if the mandate is upheld by the Supreme Court, I believe the trends I just discussed will become irreversible. Now, that does not mean that the world will stop turning, and that life as we know it will vanish from Earth; but it does mean that slowly so much power and responsibility will shift to the anointed in Washington and New York that we eventually will see that fewer and fewer of our daily activities will be conducted without having to comply with a mandate or a regulation. We and our children will see that we will have fewer choices to make in our daily lives and over our futures. At some point in that future, we will have governments that control basic services but that can’t afford to provide them because they tried to do too much and became bankrupt, and we will not have any private institutions left to fill the void. And, a few decades from now, we will have neighborhoods without neighbors, and an America our ancestors would not recognize—an America that resembles more of a modern feudal society of elites and subjects, than of a democratic society of free people. If that happens, the last experiment of the long progress of Western history will fade into being just another land where the anointed rule their subjects, and the American beacon will go dark.
I hope I am wrong. But, if I’m not, the arguments this week will determine whether we are writing the final pages of the book about our unique Western experiment, or whether we are beginning a new, wonderful chapter in that story. I pray for the beginning of a new chapter based on the best of our cherished principles.