There is a shift occurring in the United States, a tectonic shift that is imposing statism in a land predicated on limited government.
In the past, the not very distant past, mediating structures served as a barrier against managerial despotism. But these structures have been under assault for decades and are showing signs of weakness and decay.
The family has been undermined by divorce and illegitimacy. Schools have eroded rigor and standards. Churches resemble social institutions more than religious centers. And associations like Rotary and Lions are suffering from insufficient enrollment and a lack of interest.
The America Tocqueville described in mid-19th century is largely gone, a testament to the past when national identity was being refined. Not only is the culture unable to orchestrate the competing interests of government and the individual, it contributes to the widespread belief that if liberty must be modified for the sake of security that is a trade-off the public is willing to accept. The New Hampshire slogan “Live free or die” is great for license plates, but not for contemporary politics.
Some would argue that big government is a natural consequence of living in a bigger and more complex nation that was the case 100 years ago. Needless to say, this is obvious. But what is not so obvious is that incrementally the government has assumed the position of granting rights to citizens instead of having citizens grant rights to the government. During this onset of the recession it was believed by members of both parties that extending government power was essential in dealing with the economic vicissitudes of the moment. In doing so, however, the politics of grievants has emerged.
If the government uses its largesse to address social woe how are rights determined and who allocates the benefits?
A government insistent on handouts will be a government that encourages grievance.
If government benefits end up as more important than liberty, this democratic republic cannot survive. As Bastiat among others noted, a plebiscitary democracy that hands out “free” benefits will end inexorably in authoritarianism. This is, alas, the road to serfdom as Hayak described it.
Let me not overstate the case. Despite an inclination to support limited government as the nation’s founders did, my issue with the Obama administration, to cite one example, is that it is weak where it should be strong and strong where it should be weak.
For example, the president has put his prestige and influence behind a healthcare proposal that a majority of Americans oppose and that willy nilly will shift healthcare to the public sector.
By contrast, Iran has violated the non-proliferation agreement, has abused its citizens for contesting electoral manipulation, and has been the leading state sponsor of terrorism. Yet the president who should recognize and resist these challenges seems weak and unresponsive.
Americans realize the government of Grover Cleveland may not be an appropriate model for President Obama. But they are beginning to realize that government intrusiveness can reduce if not discard their liberties.
In fact, there is hardly a liberty enumerated in the Bill of Rights that hasn’t been curtailed in some fashion by recent governments. Perhaps the only liberty that has expanded its reach under a heretofore unknown precedent of privacy is sexual freedom. But is sexual freedom cover for the reduction of every other form of liberty?
The road to serfdom is paved with rights and benefits. People want more of whatever someone else will pay for. The casualty in this assessment is personal responsibility and liberty.
We are not yet an authoritarian state and my hope is that America never will be one, but it is imperative we guard against that eventuality recognizing that the rights we invent come with a corresponding withering away of freedom. Big government may not be a problem if it exercises power judiciously and in ways that promote American interests. Yet it is also true that government has a stake in perpetuating itself.
It may not always be the problem, but it is rarely the solution; and all the programs that the American people covet may in the end alter the America they once loved and admired.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of "Decade of Denial" (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and "America's Secular Challenge" (Encounter Books).
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