On Government

One of our all-time favorite writers, P.J. O’Rourke, has an intriguing little article in World Affairs Journal today, called “Innocence Abroad: The Tea Party’s Search for Foreign Policy.”  Go ahead and check it out, we’ll wait.  As the title suggests, he finds a seeming contradiction between the movement for limited government and the necessity of a strong, centralized foreign policy.

We don’t see the contradiction, frankly.

Regardless of political stripe, Americans tend to believe that the role of government is to do those things we cannot effectively do for ourselves.  We differ on where to draw the line, but the basic idea is the same.  Of course, we have many different levels of government in this country — localities, counties, states, and the feds — so the question breaks down to what should be the role of each level of government.

The essential answer is that each level of government should be responsible for those functions that the level below it cannot carry out.

That means individuals are responsible for most of their own doings.  Government is not necessary, and so has no role there.  Ditto for stuff that can be taken care of by family and community.  Government first gets involved in those functions that the individual, family and community cannot effectively handle themselves.  This is the stuff of local government: police, local roads, parks, business districts, etc.  There is stuff that is more properly handled at the county level, stuff that needs to be handled across several localities: schools, courts, main thoroughfares, etc.  There is stuff that the states ought to handle, that counties are ill-equipped to handle, or which transcend county affairs: state laws, state colleges, major transportation, the National Guard, etc.  And there are things that, either because the Constitution says so, or because the states can’t do it themselves, must be left up to the federal government: immigration, trade, national defense, printing money, and of course foreign policy.

Those in favor of limited government say the federal government has over-stepped its bounds.  The feds are involved in way too much stuff that should properly be handled at the state and local level, if at all.  They would not say that foreign policy is that kind of stuff, though, because it really is one of the things that the feds are supposed to be doing.

We have to admit that the limited-government Tea Party movement has a point here.  If you notice a pattern in what each level of government is supposed to be doing, you’ll see that as you get more and more centralized, the government ought to be running fewer and fewer things.  Most things ought to be taken care of by individuals.  When that doesn’t work, most of the remaining stuff is taken care of by the localities.  And so on and so forth.  But what has happened in recent decades is that this pyramid has been turned on its head.  The feds run almost everything they can think of.  The states run less.  The counties do even less.  And local government has hardly anything to do.

How come?  There was a time when things were the right-way-round.  But a combination of things happened in the middle of the last century.  We had a fairly well-known poli sci professor at U.Va. who posited that, around the late 50s and early 60s, people stopped seeing state and local government as the place to make things happen, and instead spent all their energies trying to make things happen at the federal level.  He thought it was a damn shame, but there you had it.  Still, that’s only part of it.  What happened to make these attitudes change?  The civil rights movement of the 50s, for one thing.  The new Commerce Clause jurisprudence and public programs of the Roosevelt years for another.  And don’t forget the rise of the administrative “fourth branch” of the federal government.  The administrative branch began to regulate everything under the sun, with or without voter input.  The Roosevelt programs created national entitlements and a vaster centralized government.  The Commerce Clause jurisprudence let Congress poke its nose into pretty much anything it felt like.  And the civil rights movement most certainly taught that the states were not where progress was to be achieved.

There have been plenty of people ever since who, like Buckley, wanted to stand athwart this arrow of history, yelling “stop!”  The Tea Party folks are of the same ilk.  They fear that the federal government is doing more than it ought to, and want to right the inverted pyramid.  (Well, a lot of them anyway.  More than a few don’t seem to know what they want.  And a few seem a bit distanced from rational thought.  But this policy seems to explain the majority of policies we’ve heard from various Tea Partiers.)

But it’s wrong to say they’re not concerned with foreign policy.  We’re sure that many are indeed concerned with it, or at least some aspect of it.  It’s just that they’re not about particular policies so much as whether the feds should be involved in making them or not.  And hardly any of them would suggest that the feds shouldn’t be involved in setting foreign policy.

(Now if we can just get that fairly right-wing portion of the electorate to apply those same principles and get the feds to stop criminalizing everything under the sun.  Except for a small number of crimes of national scope, the overwhelming majority of federal crimes are stuff that the states can handle on their own quite nicely, thank you.)

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