(A long post that is worth the time to ponder America's future, identity, and survival as the free, self-governing Constitutional republic we were given):
Is Paul Rahe Right? by Paul A. Rahe
This is the question that Rush Limbaugh posed to his listeners on Monday: Is Paul Rahe right? And it is, alas, an all-too-open question. Rush was responding to a piece, entitled “A New Birth of Freedom,” posted on BigGovernment.com early on Saturday, in which I endorsed in part the analysis of our current situation articulated by Mark Steyn here and, at greater length, here, but insisted that he underestimates American civic spirit. Where Mark sees catastrophe, I see opportunity.
Mark is, I believe, undoubtedly right in supposing that, if we acquiesce in the massive expansion of the administrative entitlement state shoved through a reluctant Congress on 21 March by Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid, the game is up. The progressives have for the most part dominated American politics for something like a century — ever since the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 in a presidential race in which the only defender of the American constitution came in third. And step by step they have centralized power and influence in Washington and subverted the separation of powers. In consequence, today, our real rulers are the bureaucrats. Within the administrative state, they make rules that have the force of law, they enforce those rules, they adjudicate all disputes arising therefore, and they are unaccountable. It is no accident that civil servants have tenure in their jobs and boast of higher salaries and far better benefits than their counterparts in the private sector.
Moreover, the progressives have succeeded in making a substantial proportion of the American people wards of the state — dependent in one fashion or another on federal largesse — and no body of men is more beholden to the federal government than the CEOs of our largest corporations. It is telling that Wall Street voted with its pocketbook for Barack Obama in 2008. It is telling that the pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies lined up behind the Obama administration’s healthcare proposals. And it is telling that big business is treading cautiously now. Those who run these companies know where their bread is buttered.
Mark Steyn’s two replies to my piece — here and, more emphatically, here — are cogent.
He is nobody’s fool, and he understands the argument articulated in my book Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift as well as I do, if not better. He comes from Canada; he has lived in Great Britain. He has witnessed the collapse of civic spirit elsewhere, and he recognizes what are the consequences of a wholesale abandonment of the spirit of self-reliance. After all, one can be a citizen only if one enters the public arena on one’s own two feet. Local self-government, where Alexis de Tocqueville’s Americans were trained in citizenship, is now just another beggar lining up with a tin cup in search of federal largesse. Civic associations are now for the most part lobbying operations with their own tin cups. Americans are losing the capacity to join together with their neighbors to do themselves the things that need doing. As I argued in a piece posted almost a year ago on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Tocqueville’s death, we have become increasingly European in our outlook and conduct. We have contracted what I call in my book “The French Disease.”
Here is the warning that Congressman Paul Ryan issued in a speech delivered in Oklahoma City on 31 March:
…In 2004, 20 percent of US households were getting about 75 percent of their income from the federal government.
In other words, one out of five families in America is already government dependent. Another 20 percent were receiving almost 40 percent of their income from federal programs, so another one in five has become government reliant for their livelihood.
All told, 60 percent – three out of five households in America – were receiving more government benefits and services (in dollar value) than they were paying back in taxes.
On the face of it, as Mark intimates in the last of his posts cited above, the task of restoring limited government is insuperable.
Perhaps it is. But I think the contrary. My reasons are simple. The administrative state, as we know it, grew for the most part gradually and unobtrusively. Yes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave it a mighty push, but he did so in a time in which the majority of Americans were desperate. Yes, Lyndon Baines Johnson gave it another mighty push, but he had the advantage that the opposition was divided and disheartened. This is not the case now. Barack Obama has torn the mask off. We can now see the tyrannical ambition at the heart of the progressive impulse. Moreover, thanks to the Tea-Party Movement, fear of which caused the Republican Party to grow a spine, Barack Obama now faces a united opposition; and, in opposing his healthcare initiative, the Republicans have articulated an argument that is both true and cogent — that there is no way to pay for a massive, new entitlement program on this scale without crippling the American economy.
This is not a matter of rocket science. When the situation we are in is explained, anyone who has ever managed to balance a checkbook can understand what is at stake. If taxes — especially taxes on employment and investment, the two areas targeted in the healthcare bill — are raised to a sufficient level, investors will not risk what they have acquired by investing it in new and expanded enterprises — they will hoard their funds as they did in the 1930s and the early 1940s– and businesses will not hire. The practical consequence of Obamacare is economic stagnation and long-term structural unemployment of just the sort that has dogged France now for something like thirty years. If this argument is restated, if it is advanced time and again over the next three years, it will strike home. It already has.
The simple truth is that the welfare state is bankrupt. The money that earners pay for Medicare does not come close to covering the costs. This year, Social Security will pay out more money than it takes in. There is no Social Security Trust Fund. Lyndon Johnson and his successors borrowed that money long ago and spent it. All that the so-called trust fund has is a collection of IOUs about to come due.
There is a reason for the crisis of the welfare state. Before Otto von Bismarck invented social insurance, before his invention was picked up in country after country, the elderly looked to their children for support; and, in part with this in mind, they had them aplenty. Everywhere in the world, however, where social insurance has been instituted, the birthrate has gradually gone down, as mores and manners have adjusted to new circumstances — and, irony of ironies, this deterioration in the birthrate has everywhere had as a consequence a relative decline in the number of earners able to fund the benefits expected by the retired. The shortfall would not be all that severe were it not for the fact that modern medicine enables Americans to live much longer lives than those who established the Social Security Administration and Medicare imagined possible. Doubling down with Obamacare promises to turn what was already a very serious problem into an unmitigated catastrophe, and plenty of Americans recognize the gravity of the situation. It was the so-called “stimulus bill,” which ostentatiously looted the future to support constituencies loyal to the Democratic Party, that initiated the eruption we call the Tea-Party Movement. And now we have “healthcare reform” to complete what the “stimulus bill” did not accomplish.
Economically, all of this is a disaster. Politically, however, it is an opportunity that did not exist in 1936 or in 1965. I believe, in fact, that it is a greater opportunity than the one that the Republicans halfheartedly grasped in 1946. As I contended in an earlier post, all that the Republicans have to do now is to restate the critique that FDR directed at Herbert Hoover and the business progressives at the Democratic Convention in 1936, for the argument that he advanced on that occasion — that “a small group” of his fellow Americans was intent on concentrating “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives” — is now quite obviously true. FDR’s words should be posted on every billboard in America.
What, you might ask, about the 60% of Americans who receive more from the government than they pay in? I will respond to a what amounts to a rhetorical question with a series of rhetorical questions. Can this be sustained in the age of Obamacare? What happens when those who pay the taxes go on strike, as they did in the 1930s and 1940s? Keep in mind that, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, unemployment was still at 15%. Moreover, many of those who depend on federal largesse are ashamed to be in the condition they are in. When the Republicans forced Bill Clinton to acquiesce in welfare reform in the 1990s, those forced off the rolls went to work with hardly a whimper. There is something shameful about living off others, and everyone in the United States understands as much. What Americans want are genuine jobs, and that is precisely what Barack Obama intends to deny them.
What seems like a catastrophe is a grand opportunity, and the only thing that can save Barack Obama and the Democrats is the Republican Party. If they Republicans cave in, if they return to their traditional role as tax collectors for the welfare state, then and only then will Obama’s coup d’état become a success. If, however, under fierce pressure from the Tea Party Movement, they stick to their guns, if they articulate the argument for limited government and balanced budgets, if they are unwilling to compromise, there will be a realignment. If Mark Steyn is right about the plight we are in — and he may well be right — it will not be because the American people are corrupt beyond repair. It will be because the Republicans are a worthless lot. This is their testing time — and ours, for if we keep the pressure up, if we push from office anyone inclined to cave in, the Republicans may surprise us by conducting themselves in an honorable fashion.