The disputes in Congress over ObamaCare, a shutdown of government, and the upcoming fight over the debt ceiling have raised the intensity of feelings to levels not seen since the Civil War. Representative George Miller of California referred to Republican Tea Partiers as Jihadists. Senator Diane Feinstein, using sexually-explicit and offensive language, called Tea Partiers “tea-baggers.” President Obama has not been much more circumspect, suggesting renegade Republicans are putting “a gun to the head of the American people.” While civility should be common to all, it is the President, above all, who should set the tone. That is leadership. While the acrimony was more deeply felt 150 years ago than today, how different are the leaders. Mr. Obama, while claiming to be “cool,” expresses scorn for his opponents, using abusive and insulting language to describe their motives. Lincoln used humor and told allegorical stories to cajole and convert those who disagreed with him.
In his first inaugural, Abraham Lincoln was compassionate and conciliatory toward those on the other side. He recognized the importance of reconciliation: “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Lincoln was described by Calvin Coolidge in 1923: “He showed to men their better selves. He had the power to bind together discordant elements. He reconciled differences.” Unlike Mr. Obama, Mr. Lincoln was unafraid to equip his Cabinet with those who disagreed with him. He enjoyed debate and personal interaction. Mr. Obama prefers televised, teleprompted speeches to adoring acolytes.
We should keep in mind that shutdowns are a regular part of our governing process. In the weekend edition of the Financial Times, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich noted that in the ten years he served as Speaker, Tip O’Neill presided over 12 government shutdowns – four when Carter was President and eight when Reagan was President.
Into this melee has jumped the New York Times’ premier and well-respected columnist, Thomas Friedman. Last Wednesday, he used (like Mr. Obama) the metaphoric “gun to the country’s head” to describe intransigent Republicans. He wrote, Mr. Obama must not give up “because the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake…our democracy is imperiled.” It is true that there is much at stake, but we are not a democracy; we are a republic, or perhaps a better definition would be a democratic republic.
The distinction goes to the crux of the disagreement. In a pure democracy, there are no constraints on government. The majority is omnipotent. It can impose its will on the minority with no fear of recourse. In a republic, the rights of the minority are protected, and the rule of law prevails. The founders were fearful of tyranny, whether it came from a despotic leader or an unrestrained majority. Additionally, our Constitution provided for the separation of powers, with each of the three branches being equal. Frustrating to political leaders, especially those with large majorities, a republic is not designed for efficiency. It is constructed to ensure the rights of the individual are not impaired and to protect the minority from what the framers saw as “the excesses of the majority.” An example would be the passage of ObamaCare in 2010, without a single opposition vote. It was an Act so long and convoluted, it was not understood by those passing it, as Nancy Pelosi so arrogantly stated at the time: “We have to pass it to see what’s in it.” Under a republic, the rule of law is sacrosanct and the individual is sovereign. In a democracy, the people (as a group) are sovereign and majority rules.
Today’s debate in Washington concerns disagreements over very fundamental views of our government. It is about determining what Washington can and cannot impose at will. It is about dependency versus responsibility. The debate we should be having is over the size and role of government. We should be discussing whether we are a democracy or a republic, or have we in fact, become a plutocracy? What is it that we expect from government? In 1887, President Grover Cleveland said that while the “people support the government, the government should not support the people.” Thirty-six year later, then Vice President Calvin Coolidge warned of the relentless and insidious voices who call for more government intervention under the guise of “general good.” Thirty-seven years later, in his inaugural, President Kennedy said: “Ask not what government can do for you, but what you can do for government.” Implicit in all their comments was the necessity for government, but that the servant should not become the master.
In contrast, Mr. Obama has determined he wants government to become omnipotent. He has refused to negotiate with Republicans over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, accusing them (correctly) of partisanship, while (incorrectly) claiming to be unbiased and “calm.” In early 2009, during the debates over the stimulus, Congressman Eric Cantor (R-VA) allowed that there were going to be some ideological differences. Mr. Obama’s retort: “I won. So I think on that one, I trump you.” He had won, but that should not have meant that Mr. Cantor’s opinions should be ignored. We have a country where more than half the people pay no federal income tax and, according to an article published in the Washington Post a year ago, 49.1% of U.S. households have at least one person receiving benefits from the government. While many of the latter are the elderly, that 49% compares to 30% thirty years ago. It is the trend, and the obligations they entail, that worries anyone concerned about the future financial welfare of the nation. (In this regard, Niall Ferguson’s op-ed in the weekend Wall Street Journal should be required reading.) It was this rational fear of debt and future obligations that was the genesis of the Tea Party five years ago.
Friedman’s entire tone, in his Times op-ed, does him an injustice: “Lily-white Republicans,” the Supreme Court’s “inane decision” over Citizen’s United, “Rush Limbaugh told them so.” He equates Republican demands to the Mafia: “Give me the money and nobody gets hurt.” In response to his own question, “How did we get here?” he has all the expected answers – from gerrymandering to the Tea Party, from the Citizens United decision to talk-radio and, of course, Fox News. There is no mention of the false sanctimony of the New York Times, nor of any of the Left leaning network TV stations, nor CNN, MSNBC nor myriad other media outlets for the Left. He is either too exhausted or finds it inconvenient to write of the fundamental (and legitimate) differences between what people on the extreme right expect of their government and those on the far left. For a man who prefers to fly above the fray, Mr. Friedman has become nothing more than another soldier in the Obamaite Army of mainstream media, Hollywood, big corporations, union leaders and assorted billionaires. In my opinion, they risk taking us toward a “Life of Julia,” in which government will care for us from cradle to grave. It would be shock to all those Presidents cited above, and is dispiriting to anyone who values individual freedom. Readers deserve more from Tom Friedman.
Pure democracies, whether direct (like New England town meetings) or representational (like some early state governments and England’s Parliament), were seen as a threat. (It should be noted that minority citizens of New England villages are protected under their state and the federal constitutions. Even so, at those meetings the majority rules.) Thomas Jefferson, in his 1781-1782 “Notes on the State of Virginia,” wrote: “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for…” Mr. Jefferson’s concern was for the rights of individuals. Early state governments were pure democracies. However, in anticipation of or in response to Jefferson, in 1780 Massachusetts became the first Republic, adopting the first constitutionally limiting government. New Hampshire became the second, in 1784. Other states followed.
It is important to understand, and critical for those involved in and commenting on the current shutdown and the upcoming debt ceiling crisis, that the Constitution provided for a limited, not omnipotent, government. Over the decades and centuries our relationship with government has changed, with government assuming more and more responsibility, thereby increasing our dependency. Perhaps some of that change has been inevitable and possibly for the good, but it does little to help our understanding of the ideological differences between the Parties if all we hear is name calling and smears. We need to remember that the Tea Party and their message is far closer to the intent of the founders, than is the concept of a benevolent government that has taken at least partial responsibility for half of Americans.
In the second decade of the 21st Century it could well be that we must accept a more intrusive government. Even Reagan was unable to reverse the trend. What he did was to moderate the trajectory. We cannot go back to the late 18th Century. But it is imperative to understand the consequences of the path we are on – that government is the people. Government produces no goods, nor sells any services. Its revenues are taxes imposed on its citizens. Each benefit paid is funded through taxation on another person. A lot of the spending and much of regulation have desirable purposes, but each regulation carries with it a limiting factor. When we are told what foods we can eat, or drinks we can sip, or guns we may possess, or what fuels we can burn, or where we can build and where we cannot, or where we can drill, or what schools we must attend we lose some aspect of personal freedom. The purpose of society is to find the balance, pitting the needs of the whole against the wishes of the one. And it requires it done in an aura of civility. People have differing beliefs and ideologies. They always have. They always will. No one encountered greater differences than did Lincoln, yet he never belittled his opponents. He argued his points and made them with humor. In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan quoted Reagan, another President who used humor, but was pragmatic: “I’d rather get 80% of what I want, than go over the cliff with my flag flying.”
I tire of those like Friedman, who see themselves as superior beings spouting wisdom from Mount Olympus, superciliously denigrating all those who disagree. Mr. Friedman failed to articulate the true nature of the rift that divides us; instead he drove deeper the wedge that splits us. His insistence that we are a democracy, that the will of the majority is sacrosanct falls into the trap of what Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton called “the Majority Omnipotent and Unlimited.” We have a republic, as Benjamin Franklin admonished the woman outside Independence Hall in 1787. The real question is, as Mr. Franklin added: can we keep it? Republicans need to understand they cannot get all they desire. They must also be willing to negotiate. And rules of civility need to be equally applied. But we also need a President who is unafraid to negotiate in good faith, who recognizes the power that is our democratic Republic, comprised of individuals living in a country where law is paramount – where the individual is sovereign and where minorities’ rights are protected.
“The thought of the day” by Sydney Williams
The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.
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