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American Renewal: The Case for Reclaiming Our Future

by Matthew Spalding
September 09, 2009

If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher,” Abraham Lincoln observed in 1838. “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

By any measure, the United States of America is a great nation. Thirteen colonies are now 50 states covering a vast continent. The American economy accounts for almost a quarter of the world’s gross domestic product. The strongest military force in the world allows the United States to extend its power anywhere on the globe. The American people remain one of the most hardworking, churchgoing, affluent, and generous in the world. Just as George Washington predicted, the United States is a sovereign nation “in command of its own fortunes.”

And yet it seems we are on a course of self-destruction.

A national government once limited to certain core functions has an all but unquestioned dominance over virtually every area of American life, restricted only by expediency, political will, and (less and less) budget constraints.

Congress passes massive pieces of legislation with little serious deliberation and is increasingly an administrative body overseeing a vast array of bureaucratic policymakers and rule-making bodies. Although the Constitution vests legislative powers in Congress, the majority of “laws” are promulgated by administrative agencies under the guise of “regulations”—a form of rule by bureaucrats who are mostly unaccountable and invisible to the public.

Federal and state courts, meanwhile, don’t adjudicate the law as much as they rewrite it, and sometimes make it up, regularly usurping the power of the political branches in ways that expand government power and diminish the authority of popular consent. Many of the most important decisions in Americans’ lives, and the final answers to virtually every major question of public policy in America today, are made by unelected judges. It is not too much to ask whether there is a single clause of the Constitution left that has not been traduced by judicial reinterpretation.

Beset by a Congress that is increasingly administrative and a Supreme Court that is more and more legislative, the modern President constantly campaigns for a mandate that is subject to the enormous powers wielded by the other branches. The bureaucracy is so overwhelming that it is unclear whether modern Presidents actually can be held constitutionally responsible for “tak[ing] care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Presidents now appoint numerous policy “czars”—megabureaucrats operating outside of the existing cabinet structure—to forward their objectives over the inertia of their own administrations.

America is covered by an intricate web of government policies and procedures. States, localities, and private institutions still exist, subsumed under national programs—states increasingly as administrators of policy emanating from Washington, supplicants seeking relief and assistance from the federal government. Growing streams of money flow from Washington to every state and locality, thousands of private and nonprofit organizations, and millions of individuals who are in turn increasingly subject to federal rules and regulations.

A nation of citizens is becoming a society of consumers who pay more and more taxes to purchase more and more government-controlled programs and services. The United States is nearing the point that a majority of its citizens will have no federal income tax liability, yet the government continues to act without regard for the future, leaving the bill for future generations. If spending continues at the current rate, the United States will accumulate more debt in the next 10 years than the combined debt built up over the course of all previous American history.


A New Form of Despotism?

As a people, we have fallen into the habit of expecting government to solve all problems, remove risk from our lives, and provide for all our needs and wants. It is commonplace now for individuals to look to government to relieve their most ordinary concerns, support their basic endeavors, and make good on the simplest injuries anticipated in daily life. As more and more citizens look to government for benefits and services, they come to depend on them, and the government. Are Americans becoming the clients of government rather than its self-governing master?

Dependency encourages a politics in which government benefits and programs are treated as payoffs for existing or potential voter groups—a modern-day patronage approach to building political majorities. As benefits expand beyond primary needs to include middle-class entitlements, conflicts arise between competing self-interests and a long-term, common interest that favors self-reliance, personal responsibility, and civic independence. Has dependence on government created a class of Americans who are “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”? This was James Madison’s definition of a “faction.” And the Founders warned that majority faction was the chief threat to the very existence of free, republican government.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville warned of a tendency of democracies, bent on bringing about equal results in all cases, to succumb to a centralized and consolidated government that promises to master every social condition and outcome in pursuit of this elusive goal. The combination of egalitarianism and the regulatory power of centralized administrative government, Tocqueville feared, could lead to a new form of despotism that would destroy the human spirit. In this future, he foresaw “an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives.” Government would become the all-powerful instrument serving these insatiable appetites. Self-governing citizens would degrade themselves into passive subjects of an impersonal, bureaucratic nation-state.

Written over 170 years ago, Tocqueville’s analysis of a form of despotism that democratic peoples should more fear seems ever more prophetic with the passage of time:

Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the sole agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, and divides their inheritances: can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

The problem is not that such a government is hard, or even harsh, but just the opposite. It promotes selfish, petty interests because it caters to them, and by doing so deforms the character of self-governing citizens, rendering “the employment of the free will less useful and more rare.” It creates a therapeutic society under the authoritarian rule of bureaucrats and experts. Such a power, Tocqueville concludes, “does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

Once its citizens have given up liberty for comfortable security and the responsibility of self-government for the ease of government-as-parent, democratic government can become a type of soft despotism—less coercive in its methods and more benign in its intentions but despotic nonetheless. And as Tocqueville surely knew, the shepherd cares for his defenseless flock for the ultimate purpose of fleecing and consuming them.

Is this to be the failed destiny of the greatest experiment in self-government mankind has ever attempted?


The Promise of American Renewal

There is another way forward. The slow Europeanization of America is not inevitable, and it’s not too late. But it will take a monumental effort to get our country back on track.

The primary reason the United States has not gone the way of Europe—though there are clear parallels throughout our society—is that our country has long maintained a political culture grounded on America’s moral and constitutional principles, which has kept it moored in the Western tradition of reason and faith, protected from the radicalization (and the emptiness) of modern thought that has devastated Europe. Indeed, the European-style arguments that American progressives imported in the last century have not fully succeeded here precisely because they are working against rather than with the deep currents of America’s ideas and institutions.

We don’t need to remake America or discover new and untested principles. The change we need is not the rejection of America’s principles but a great renewal of these permanent truths about man, politics, and liberty—the foundational principles and constitutional wisdom that are the true roots of our country’s greatness.

We must look to the principles of the American Founding—its philosophical grounding, its practical wisdom, and its limitless spirit of self-government and independence—not as a matter of historical curiosity but as a source of assurance and direction for our times. In a world of moral confusion, and of arbitrary and unlimited government, the American Founding is our best access to permanent truths and our best ground from which to launch a radical questioning of the whole foundation of the progressive project.

Renewing America’s principles doesn’t have to mean going back to the 18th century, or some other time for that matter. Think of principles as the unchanging standards that inform changing experiences. The question is not “What Would the Founders Do?” but what will we do as we go forward toward an unknowable future with these fixed principles as our trustworthy guides. It is not about looking back to the past but rather looking down at our roots in order to look up to our highest ideals.

Nor does it mean that today’s problems are to be solved by formulaic appeals to our principles. It is the job of prudence, keenly aware of the necessities of particular circumstances and the realities of practical outcomes, to advance principles under prevailing conditions by relating particular actions to their ends. But the key to making prudential decisions, as well as distinguishing between reasonable compromise and self-defeating reforms, is a deep understanding of and commitment to core principles. It is just this sure commitment to principles that can transform prudence from mere timidity into bold and courageous action when the times call for it. And serious, thoughtful leaders cannot doubt that we are living in a time that calls for prudence at its very boldest.

It is not the affirmation of a peculiar set of antiquated claims that tie us to America as much as it is our common recognition of transcendent truths that bind us all together and across time to the patriots of 1776. Only with this sure foundation can we go forward as a nation, addressing the great policy questions before us and continuing to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity.

The challenge is to faithfully maintain, vindicate, and fulfill our principles in the face of constant, and thoughtless, demands for change.


Reclaiming America

Reclaiming our future requires a concerted effort to recover America’s core principles—liberty, equality, natural rights, consent of the governed, religious freedom, private property, the rule of law, constitutionalism, and self-government. To push back the progressive assault on liberty, we need to focus on six areas.

Educate for Liberty. High schools largely ignore, minimize, or disparage the story of America’s Founding in the classroom. Students can graduate from the top colleges and universities in America without taking a single course in U.S. history. Dominated by relativism and historicism, too many of our schools, colleges, and universities ignore the American Founding because it is too outdated and difficult to explain to modern students, or instead fixate on the acknowledged flaws or alleged errors of the American Founding in view of modern values. By doing so these schools are subverting the principles of liberty and constitutional government. We must reverse course by making a commitment at every level of education to promote an awareness and appreciation of the true principles of the American Founding.

Engage the American Mind. Rather than throwing up our hands and withdrawing from the public debate, we need to engage it in new ways by making a clear and forthright defense of core principles, applying them creatively to the questions of the day, supporting positions consistent with those principles, and generally reframing the national debate about the most serious issues before us. Despite constant criticism and scorn by academic elites, political leaders, and the popular media, most Americans still believe in the uniqueness of this country and respect the noble ideas put forth by the American Founders. We must give voice to all those who have not given up on their country’s experiment in self-government, who have not concluded that the cause of liberty and limited constitutional government is lost, and who have not accepted America’s inevitable decline. The goal must be to restore the liberating principles of the American Founding as the defining public philosophy of our nation.

Uphold the Constitution. We need political leaders who understand and uphold America’s principles. Public officials take a solemn oath to support the Constitution of the United States, which means they have a moral obligation to abide by the Constitution in carrying out the duties of their office. For members of Congress, this means determining the constitutional authority for the laws they pass. For the executive, it means considering the constitutionality of legislation presented to him, and withholding approval of unconstitutional legislation, as well as executing the law in a constitutional manner. While judges are in a unique position to spell out the meaning and consequences of the Constitution, it is imperative to understand—and for them to recognize—that they are not above, outside, or immune from the constraints of that document.

Defend Free Markets and Fiscal Responsibility. The fruits of hard work and entrepreneurship for the sake of improving the condition of self and family, as well as the opportunities that have long been associated with the pursuit of the American Dream, are moral goods and contribute to human happiness. All have the added virtue of harnessing enlightened self-interest to serve the common good and limited constitutional government. Now, more than ever, we must connect the economic arguments for liberty and prosperity with the moral case for equal opportunity and free enterprise in order to make a full defense of the American system of democratic capitalism.

Revive Self-Government. In assuming more and more tasks in more and more areas outside of its responsibilities, modern government has caused great damage to American self-rule. By feeding the entitlement mentality and dependency rather than promoting self-reliance and independence, administrative government encourages a character incompatible with republicanism. The extended reach of the state—fueled by its imperative to impose moral neutrality on the public square—continues to push traditional social institutions into the shadows of public life, undermining respect for institutions meant to strengthen the fabric of America’s culture and civil society.

Promote Liberty in the World. By the very nature of the principles upon which it is established, the United States—more than any other nation in history—has a special responsibility to defend not only the cause of liberty but also its meaning at home and abroad. This is why friends of freedom everywhere have always looked to this country and drawn great inspiration from its ideas, example, and actions. A confident understanding of America’s principles, and a renewed sense of American independence and purpose, is a reaffirmation of what we hold to be self-evident. Anything less would be to deny our own birthright and undermine our moral standing in the world.


Our Noble Task

Levi Preston of Danvers, Massachusetts, was in his early 20s in the spring of 1775, when he fought at the Battle of Concord, at the opening of the American Revolution.

Many years later, Captain Preston was asked why he went to fight that day. Was it the intolerable oppressions of British colonial policy, or the Stamp Act? “I never saw any stamps.” What about the tax on tea? “I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.” It must have been all his reading of Harrington, Sidney, and Locke on the principles of liberty? “Never heard of ’em. We read only the Bible, the catechism, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.” Well, what was it? asked the interviewer. What made you take up arms against the British? “Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”

Self-government is the primary as well as the culminating first principle of American liberty. The Founders understood it in the two-fold sense of political self-government, in which we govern ourselves as a political community, and of moral self-government, according to which each individual is responsible for governing himself. They believed that the success of the former required a flourishing of the latter: Individuals could not govern themselves as a people unless they were each first capable of governing themselves as individuals, families, and local communities.

The American Founders also knew that the perpetuation of liberty would always depend on spirited citizens and patriotic statesmen actively engaged in the democratic task of governing themselves, holding to the truths of 1776. This constant challenge is the reason that American constitutionalism was from the beginning, and will always remain, an experiment.

In the midst of the many challenges we face—unsustainable spending and increasing debt, the future burden of social welfare entitlements, national security in a dangerous world—the real crisis that tears at the American soul is not a lack of courage or solutions as much as a loss of conviction. Do we still hold these truths? Do the principles that inspired the American Funding retain their relevance in the 21st century? We will find it difficult to know what to do and how to do it as long as we are not sure who we are and what we believe.

We must restore America’s principles—the truths to which we are dedicated—as the central idea of our nation’s public philosophy. But before we can rededicate ourselves as a nation to these principles we must rediscover them as a people. Only when we know these principles once again can we renew America.

Only when we understand the significance of these principles can we grasp the nobility of our accomplishments as a people and see how far we have strayed off course as a nation.

Only then can we realize the societal choices before us and begin to develop a strategy to reclaim our future.

Dr. Spalding is Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, and editor of The Heritage Guide to the Constitution. This article is adapted from his new book We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, published by ISI Books (forthcoming in October 2009).


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