Defining Ideas

We Want Our Citizens Engaged, Not Enraged

Thursday, July 21, 2011
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What is the proper role of self-government in contemporary American conservatism? The question of self-government is central for contemporary conservatism because, as Lincoln reminds us, liberty requires government not just of and for the people, but also government by the people. Self-government, in the form of an active citizenry, is critical to conservatism because it conserves individual liberty in the face of excessive and distant government.

Today, the sense that Washington has become alien and remote is among the visible causes of our political discontent. Activism, such as that of the tea parties, shows us something of both the current demand for self-government and its long term worth.

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A tea party rally in Virginia (Photo credit: formatted_dad, via flickr)

In discussions of politics, American conservatives usually focus on reducing excessive government rather than on promoting self-government. Interference in private freedom, especially interference in economic action, is normally their major concern. Now, however, unease about oppressive interference is matched by the worry that we rule ourselves only nominally. Many fear that we have let our powers of self-government be usurped by bureaucrats, experts, private interests, unaccountable representatives, and mysterious and uncontrollable social forces.

The two concerns—the decline of self-government and excessive government—are in fact related, because in a free country controlling excessive government requires self-government from an active citizenry. Mere mechanisms (such as seemingly automatic spending caps) that limit government can be useful. But such mechanisms are not self-enforcing, and judicial and administrative control will sooner or later fall into harmful hands.

Without attentive and organized voters who reward representatives who limit government, government is likely to expand.

To advance our discussion, we should explore more carefully why people think that self-government is diminishing. One usually defends this claim by mentioning low electoral turnout rates and the startlingly high disapproval rates for political institutions. The disapproval and low turnout are said to be caused by the corrosive effects of negative campaign advertising and the corrupting effects of excessive campaign spending. Many candidates and representatives are now such partisan extremists, one can further argue, that citizens become alienated from politics.

A second possible cause of the decline of self-government is more administrative than political. The tangle of government rules and regulations is so complex that it is beyond timely change for anyone caught in it. The public employees who in effect make these rules and the judges who interpret them appear isolated from the concerns of those they serve. Even when we see local actions that responds to citizens’ desires, it is regularly trumped by federal interference—the interference of distant, unjust, or corrupt officials. Moreover, complexity, distance, imposition, and electoral corruption encourage unjust political favoritism and arbitrary redistribution of wealth which, in turn, are significant causes of government excess. The result is that self-government is severely constrained.

The tea party is proof-positive that self-government is in demand these days.

I would argue that the first set of concerns—low voter turnout and alienating partisanship—largely misunderstands what intelligent and limited self-government requires. Low turnout and easy cynicism about political institutions are not especially serious problems. Why should we want to give control to those who are too lazy or selfish to vote? Why should we want the strict control of wealth in campaigns? Much of the law—such as campaign finance law—that tries to correct these problems adds to them by restricting political freedom. Policies that exacerbate the problem they are addressing through the solutions they offer are foolish.

Perhaps the gravest issue here is a mistake about partisanship. Partisanship strikes many people as problematic, and this is true if the partisanship is so extreme that its source or goal is outside the order that protects individual rights. From the conservative point of view, having no partisanship, or no partisanship that strikes Democrats as extreme, would mean having no Reagan, or no effective opposition to Obama’s excesses.

The power of non-partisanship is visible in people’s dislike of parties and wish that politicians serve the common good. We expect common action if our standards and boundaries are being attacked as a whole. The obvious example is security and war. But partisanship usually belongs to the competitive genius of successful liberal government. It helps keep in check the excesses of control or monopoly that many leaders—other "partisans"—want. It helps limit political action to areas where agreement is so broad that partisanship is acceptable—for example, in helping to generate wealth. And, it helps to correct government misdeeds.

Why, after all, should Republicans acquiesce in Democrats’ extremes or Democrats in Republicans’? No one is pleased when the wish to win leads to blatant distortion. But eliminating partisanship, or seeing everything one dislikes as impermissibly extreme, is harmful. Excesses in electioneering can damage decency, but they cannot hide for long where campaigners stand. What we need is partisanship within the limits of our way of life, and this is something that the voters must police by rewarding what they desire. Nothing prevents a free people from being active, as popular movements show us again and again, nationally and locally.

The more significant facts about declining self-government, and its deeper causes, involve the distance between the people and those who govern them—and the complexity of the rules, regulations, and procedures that those who govern construct for the people. One cause of this distance is the excessive attraction of law, the academy, government service, and the media as careers. When so much talent is oriented to these areas, self-government declines. "Success" in these fields often involves expanding government, rather than promoting economic competition. Excessive attention to these fields diminishes the private political energy that is vital for a self-government that also wishes to limit government.

What’s so bad about partisanship? It promotes liberty and keeps excessive government in check.

How, then, can we advance self-government beyond episodic, although welcome, citizen action? The central requirement is to reduce government’s scope and size, the number of issues with which it deals, and the technical complexity of these issues. There is no good reason for government to be as involved as it is with the details of health, housing, and finance. This reduction in scope would diminish the everyday economic stakes of politics—both nationally and in states so large that they often are more remote from citizens than the federal government is—and would reorient government to broader issues of security and regulation.

But how can we obtain this reduction, given the remoteness of government from so many? How, especially, can we obtain it given the prevalence and dominance of experts, bureaucrats, and judges?

There are two phenomena worth noting. The first is that however much specialized knowledge expands, we can still control government’s general direction because we can assess whether it conforms to reasonable ends and principles. Experts know these ends no better than ordinary citizens do.

Understanding our ends requires correctly grasping our broad aims of freedom, virtue, and excellence, and our more concrete or immediate goals such as security and health. Much vigorous public debate is about the meaning, rank, and relationship of these ends to each other. How much security of what sort should be risked by how much freedom of speech, care in trials, privacy in activity, and so on. How much health is worth how much funding? How much equality is worth how much excellence? How much safety is worth how much local control? How much military might is worth how much money? How much short-term economic difficulty is worth how much long-term fiscal stability?

These are questions that both technical experts and lay citizens can answer. These are not mere matters of arbitrary speculation; they can be discussed reasonably by all people. Yet, for such discussion we need a thoughtful public characterized by intelligent opinion and virtuous practices. We need a public that seeks to conserve our founding liberties.

The second point is that practical reason and common sense can place expert advice into a sensible context, and can evaluate it. The key is to comprehend how equal rights and limited government are connected. The major difficulty in controlling bureaucrats is not that the principles of liberty are abstruse, but that expertise becomes so powerful in its claims and, especially, in its legalistic and scientific discussions, that common sense and evaluation become very difficult. The counter to this is education about, and government directed to, equal liberty and the character that advances it. Voters and their representatives are equipped to grasp not just what the proper goals of government should be, but also the effects these goals have on actions and policies.

Representatives need to clarify more aggressively the concrete effects of economic, budget, health, education, and military policy. Two useful questions that they should ask to help control experts, and that citizens should ask to help control representatives, are these: does a proposed policy use and promote in its practices the virtues and freedoms it is meant to enhance and secure? Is the issue being addressed truly technical and/or legalistic, or is it a matter of common sense?

We will enhance self government and encourage the resurgence of civic activism that promotes individual liberty and limited government if, among other measures, we ask these questions, educate the public intelligently, welcome responsible partisan battles, and do not stifle the social and economic energy that government should be advancing.

Getting Involved in Local Government

The portion of government most accessible and easiest to influence is one's town or county government. I attend all my local commissioner's work sessions and most other sessions because I can--since I am retired--and want to, because I am a Tea Party leader in Cecil County, Maryland. What disturbs me is that people seemingly only become involved when there appears to be a direct impact on them, but since few attend the meetings, only the media reports will enlighten them. We have over 60,000 registered voters in our county, yet we are lucky to have six citizens attend the commissioner's working sessions and not many more during the official sessions.

The cynicism I see daily is a result of decades of individuals losing hope of influencing politicians combined with, in my opinion, the lack of understanding of government processes due to the reduction in public schools of mandatory courses in civics. I started on this effort on February 27, 2009 after the stimulus pork barrel bill was signed and am now fully engaged. I guess the 2010 elections gave me hope, but the 2012 elections will let me know whether or not my and others' efforts like mine have been worth it.

--Alan (Al) M. Reasin

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