The Path to A Smaller Government: Get Involved

Here’s an irony: the solution to too much government involvement is more involvement in government.

Here’s a contrast:

Image 1: In Colonial New England, because the American colonies were not a priority to the English parliament and king, every local community was locally run. It seems as if virtually everybody was involved in politics, but the politics were local.

In other words, in every local community, local people were making decisions about local matters.

Image 2: In 19th century Imperial Russia, on the other hand, Russian society was run by the Imperial bureaucracy and the aristocracy. The Russian workers had little to no formal involvement in local politics.

John Reed was the author of Ten Days That Shook the World, an eyewitness, sympathetic description of the Bolshevik revolution. In this propoganda piece for “the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” Reed writes,

Foreigners, and Americans especially, frequently emphasise the ‘ignorance’ of the Russian workers. It is true they lacked the political experience of the peoples of the West, but they were very well trained in voluntary organisation.

Now, one always runs the risk of over-simplification when he selects a passage out of context, but when I read those words, they fairly leapt off the page.

I’d never thought of this contrast before. In America at that time, it seems that one could still find a vibrant, local political life that gave people a voice in their own affairs. Meanwhile, in Russia, if they wanted a voice in their own affairs, they had to engage in extra-political organizations that would represent their financial and social interests.

The contrast is too clean. At first it sounds as though we have two options: either be involved in politics or be involved in voluntary organizations. Thankfully, the choice is not needed.

However, a balance is needed and I don’t know the proportions of that balance. An idea assertively suggests itself in any case: if people are not deeply involved in local politics, then they will lose the right to govern themselves.

Voluntary organizations are different. They are unelected, though their members will often elect their leadership. When they begin to involve themselves in matters more appropriately left to the political arm, liberty is threatened at the local level.

For this reason, local government needs to be maintained and sustained by local communities and by higher levels of government. When the union workers, or the Optimists, or the Catholic Aid Society, or any other voluntary organization asserts its power to govern instead of appealing to the governors, society is, in varying degrees, placed at risk.

This reflection may point to the most nefarious influence of collectivism and to the fatal flaw in conventional “conservatism.” First, collectivism, as practiced by both parties in American politics under the almost triumphant influence of Progressivism in both politics and pedagogy, has drawn the decision making power away from communities and cities and towns upward into states and federal governments.

How much decision making authority does the local alderman really have? You know who you voted for for president. Do you know who you voted for for alderman or even mayor?  

The fatal flaw in conventional “conservatism” may be rooted in sloppy use of English. Everywhere I look, when I read the conservative approaches, they all talk about “limited” government.

Like every other political buzzword, this one is not actionable for the simple reason that it has not been understood or even thought much about.

The standard comeback of the liberal argues that conservatives want limited government except when it enforces their morality or goes to war. Then they want big government.

Both are right. We alternate between two parties that want the federal government expanded in complementary areas. As a result, it grows, regardless of the party in power.

Here, I think, may be at least part of the explanation: when a “conservative” says “limited government” he seems often to be expressing a bad attitude toward government, expressed in the phrase “necessary evil.”

As one who believes that “of the increase of [Christ’s] government there shall be no end,” and prays every day that His kingdom will come, and who recognizes that even angels are ordered in a celestial hierarchy, it is difficult for me to understand how Christians can possibly believe in government as a “necessary evil.”

On the contrary, government, understood as what it is instead of a word with connotations, is a natural and a supernatural good.

If you think of it as an evil, then you necessarily want to limit it for the sake of limiting it.

But to do so is to take an ax to a body to remove a sliver. Government should be limited, not for the sake of limiting it, but as a result of defining it. The difference is not slight.

The constitution does not merely limit our government so we can talk about how small it is. It limits it BY defining its role.

When people think government is an evil that should be limited, they come to see it as beneath their dignity to involve themselves in it. 

Since so many conservatives think of government as an evil, they don’t get involved, not even at the local level. Consequently, people who love government as a means, not to manage affairs in a local community but as a means to “change the world” and all that sort of adolescent rubbish, get involved in politics.

And here’s the resulting irony: such a government gets involved in everything, undefined and unrestrained precisely because the local community doesn’t want to govern itself.

The real difference between the progressive and the conservative is that the progressive wants expansive and virtually unlimited government at the highest levels (which is why they have a tendency toward symbolic gestures) while the conservative wants a vigorous and defined local government that involves as much of the community as possible in decision making.

So if we want a nation of limited government, then we need more people involved in government at the local level, representing the interests of the local community close to home.

Since this responsibility has been abdicated to ever higher levels of government, we are now under the unbearable weight of a federal government that cannot possibly make wise decisions about local affairs.

Under such an expansive and intrusive federal government, you can expect two things: local governments become irrelevant and voluntary organizations expand.

Tea Parties are fun, but I’d like to know how many participants are involved in local government. Not everybody should be, but everybody who is called to it must be.

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