It is, perhaps, a somewhat self-immolating trait for anyone who spends a majority of their time thinking, talking and writing about government policy to throw up their hands and despair of the entire affair. And yet, if we are to be honest with ourselves and each other, it’s likely long past time to adopt a far more pessimistic attitude regarding what we should expect from the Masters of the Universe ensconced in their District of Columbia digs. Even as some of our greater thinkers ponder the meaning of various anniversaries we are reaching, such as that of the Great Society, and others mark Brown vs Board of Education, a frank assessment of the many problems which have plagued the nation for generations now with no sign of abatement should show us that we’re expecting a small horse to pull a cart the size of a mountain. It is an unfortunate truth that the government is capable of accomplishing only a very limited set of tasks which, not surprisingly, are listed in a brief section of the Constitution.
As with most issues, solving a problem requires understanding whether you are treating a symptom or a root cause. The federal government is only passably efficacious at the former – and even then, just in scattered instances – and wholly unequipped to deal with the latter. You may choose any of a number of societal ills to debate this point… a crumbling school system, real and perceived racial tension, violence outside your doors, declining productivity and employment or a national health crisis. Each of these have been trumpeted as a cause du jour by public officials and and office seeking hopefuls. Blue ribbon panels are established, experts are flown in from around the globe to testify before chambers empty of all but CSPAN camera operators, and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are flushed into panacea programs which rarely move the needle past the point where the public attention span has been exceeded.
But in the end, these things all lie beyond the control of the government. They are all very real problems, but none of them came about because we failed to pass this regulation or reached too far in enacting that one. These are societal ills which grow up from between our toes and choke us off like tall weeds bringing the harvest to ruin. In short, the government can not solve these woes because, through our function as the selectors of those who represent us, we are the government. And we are also the source of the problem.
Society could heal itself through direct means, but the motivation to do so and the awareness of the potential long term benefits to be gained through short term sacrifice seem to be missing. In large numbers we have failed on a fundamental level, starting with the family and the general faith in an underlying comprehension of basic right and wrong. How many homes raise children today without a father? (Lee Culpepper shares some interesting thoughts on this in #BringBackOurFathers.) And how many of these children flee the nest and head out into the world having had no example of responsibility and no imparted sense of the difference between good and evil?
The basic concept of work as a positive, admirable activity to be lauded, and one which sows the seeds of its own rewards is lacking. Some may see this as the harping of a last generation, capitalist hanger on, but such an assumption blames the cart for the path taken by the horse. Capitalism is not some evil construct of the bourgeoisie to force work upon the masses. It was the result of a society which worked its way toward growing prosperity and success. But we have, in large numbers, lost track of that ideal and too often see work as a nuisance required for survival or an impediment to recreation.
Crime should not be an inherent trait in civilized man, yet we find it on every street in every town. Man, it seems, can breed into himself a weakness of spirit if the environment is sufficiently corrupt. We all know from an early age that stealing is wrong… not wrong because there is a rule forbidding it, but because it simply is the wrong thing to do. But if enough others around us are doing it with impunity and without facing serious consequence, the natural tendency to shrink from it is diminished.
Criminal behavior, sloth, hatred, a tendency toward unhealthy or destructive lifestyles and choices… these are all traits which apparently flourish in a society where such things are tolerated, if not rewarded. And no action by the government we construct can do more than put temporary bandages over such wounds. Assuming there is still time and the will to do so, the only answers to these problems will be found not by way of more or better government, but by looking to ourselves and reviewing how we guide our families and interact with and support the families around us. It would involve rebuilding how we participate in and internally police our communities and supporting some sense of faith, be it in God by name or a simple acknowledgement of shared moral propriety and a group intolerance for the lack of same. The government can not change these things because we are the government. When we heal ourselves, the government will heal without effort, and it will happily find itself with far less work to do.
This depressing essay should close with a reminder from a scholarly man:
A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circlue of our felicities.
And with that, go forth and enjoy the day.