A citizen movement committed to restoring Vermont to an independent republic, free to pursue life, liberty and happiness unimpeded by the demands of an imperial, corrupt and disintegrating United States.
This article was first published in Green Mountain Noise, 2VR’s E-zine publication
Question: Does the American National Government work?
Answer: Yes. It was designed not to work and as such is working perfectly.
Within the epigraph above lies a pathway of escape from the ever expanding Federal vortex of limits to human scale democracy. Washington is not strong. It is profoundly weak. Thus; no more excuses. Be of good cheer. This is our moment.
Here I offer a hopeful hypothesis to those who seek escape from the ever-expanding vortex of centralized constraints to communitarian governance and human scale politics. The Federal Government is becoming geometrically weaker as time passes. Ironically (perhaps even perversely) that is why many of its most egregious activities from foreign policy indiscretions (cue the NSA) to regulatory cronyism (cue the FTC) to “dead on arrival” domestic policy (cue Obamacare) are conducted in and protected by the shadows of complexity.
Indeed, managers of large scale organizations (public or private) seek protection in complexity the way white-tail deer seek cedar swamps in hunting season.
How long can a real democracy survive when so many of its activities cannot stand the light of day?
Last May I retired after forty-five years of teaching (as part of my duties) the Introduction to American Government course in four different colleges and universities; finishing up after 37 years at the University of Vermont. By a conservative estimate this means well over 150 classes. Every one of these classes began with this rhetorical question to my students: Does the Federal Government work? Followed by a simple answer: “Yes” and the explanation: “The Federal Government was designed not to work and as such is performing very well indeed.”
This “weak by design” has produced a performance curve which is (by definition) negative. The more we ask the Federal Government to do for us, the poorer its performance becomes. Worse still, this decline is not linear. It is curvilinear – over time Washington’s performance curve has declined at a steeper and steeper rate.
Simply put, while the law-making authority to interfere with the lives of our citizens has for 200 hundred years skyrocketed beyond even the most ambitious anticipations of the Founders, the structural apparatus to create and implement this dramatic new authority remains essentially unchanged. Within the chaos of incompetency lies the great danger to our Republic. A proliferation of unseen, unaccountable and thus uncontrollable nodes of influence have arisen to deal with the complexity of governing a continental enterprise from the center. The result is what political scientists have traditionally called the “politics of muddling through.” Accordingly, any serious notion of “democratic accountability” has long since vanished.
Those who face the daunting challenge of reinstating a truly democratic America should see this as an opportunity. The tide of history is with us. We are not challenging a healthy, robust and competent democracy. We are challenging a tired democracy and therefore a weak democracy; a splendid achievement in the history collective human behavior that unfortunately has been hobbled by its inability to reign in its natural appetite for aggrandizing authority — even though the cost of this authority was paid in terms of democratic legitimacy.
Consider the health care fiasco: in light of this, President Obama is getting a bum rap. The truth is national health care was doomed from the start. For all its good intentions it was a “bridge too far.” The President, who is very smart and well educated, should have known this. He should have paid more attention to the communitarian left and not the centrist liberals. He should have paid more attention to the wisdom of localized dynamics like the Vermont Independence Movement.
But the President, with centrist liberals (with whom he essentially agrees) egging him on, failed to appreciate the implications of an essential truth: We are not France or Demark or (for goodness sake) even England. In 1789, we created the framework for a continental, federal enterprise, dividing authority between the states and the central government. More importantly we trumped any chance of coherent central enterprise (one thinks of Canada) by setting our national institutions against one another. The separation of authority within the three branches of the central government is as inhibiting as ever: riddled with compromise after compromise, exception after exception, and qualification after qualification, Obamacare only narrowly survived the Congress. And it survived Washington by only one vote. A single, solitary human being (one judge on the Supreme Court) might still have scuttled the entire affair.
There was no mandate; only a series of program buster compromises in Congress, followed by a grudging OK from the Court based on the remarkably obtuse claim that heart of the matter was not social policy but rather taxation.
Simply put, the President has been operating without a net.
In short, the Founders created our frame of government under an almost pathological fear of it, scattering booby-traps and land mines throughout the document that insured a cage fight over any attempt to produce coherent, effective governmental action – especially domestic action.
Americans seem to forget, moreover, that the structural apparatus we put in place over two centuries ago is fundamentally still in place. We are using it today. If Madison and his contemporaries were to drop in to our 21st century, they would be amazed (given the kind of world surrounding them) that the structure they created literally for the horse and buggy days is still fundamentally intact. In short they would have recognized it immediately: “Yeah, we created that.”
Times have changed, you say. Two centuries have come and gone. We’ve made improvements.
Wrong. For over nearly a century now, we’ve only whistled our way through an ever thickening darkness of increasing federal initiatives and actions; all the while weakening the national government still further. With centralized, bureaucratic national power bearing down on us after World War II we “checked” central executive authority in the worst possible way – politically – by limiting the President to two terms in office.
It gets worse. Given that Congressional elections are staged (an appropriate word it turns out) every two years, in effect the President now has only two years in each four-year term to lead the country – the first year after each Congressional election. Even this is problematic and depends on how well the political parties do in the mid-term elections.
Everywhere there is a check and a balance and we survive only through compromise. But “compromise” is an odious notion when things need to be done well. Imagine a carpenter “compromising” distances instead of measuring them. The “middle” position on anything is almost always and by definition – wrong.
This begs an equally important question: If the Framers built the U.S. Constitution to preclude and inhibit action, to retard initiative and to seek the “lowest common denominator,” how could we have survived and, indeed, dominated the planet for so long? Cut to the chase – the answer is rather simple. First of all we were lucky. A vast, immensely rich (temperate in climate) continent lay to the west – virtually unprotected from the advanced cultures (especially military) of Europe. Despite their incredible bravery and fortitude, Native Americans never had a chance. Gun powder and guns used by Samuel De Champlain on the Algonquin must have seemed like ray guns from spacemen would seem to us today.
The West also served as a “release valve” for the ambitious and the daring. Instead of staying on the East Coast and bringing pressure to bear on the Government, they went west. Vermont’s Mathew Lyon is an example. Davie Crocket and Daniel Boone, who like Lyon, were former members of Congress, were others. Secondly, a continent of free land meant we could ease pressure on the Government from the poor by giving (literally) them land in the West. Recall the Homestead Act. Third, for the first three quarters of our existence prior to FDR’s revolution, the Federal Government was asked to do very little indeed – almost nothing that could in any way, shape or fashion compare to national health care.
Think of it this way. Departments in the Executive Branch are the institutions that carry out the laws passed by Congress. We began America with the Departments of “War” (a more honest word than “defense”), State, and Treasury. Half a century later we needed to add Interior. Agriculture followed in 1862. Forty years later we got Commerce. Labor came in 1913 and Defense in 1947. Since then six others! The U.S. government created six Departments in the first 150 years and seven in the last 50.
Ironically, (given our contemporary conundrum) the two major structural changes we have made in our Constitution had the effect of weakening the Federal Government’s ability to act. The first was to provide for the direct election of senators. In the beginning we elected our senators from the state legislatures. This created a bond between the legislative sensibilities and policies between the states and Washington. Senators serving in Washington owed their incumbency to a state institution. Second and much more importantly we now deny a sitting president a third term. By limiting presidential terms we not only damage continuity between the people and Washington, we inhibit remarkably the power of the president in his or her second term. It’s difficult enough to be president of the United States in a time when a president is held accountable for public policy creation as well as implementation.
Finally. All of the above has been pretty well established by political scientists over the years. Their solution has been the political parties – institutions that (in their modern form) could not have been imagined in 1789. Indeed they were a source of concern. In the first half of the 20th Century, however, these institutions became a means to establish a “web of connection and coherence” between the branches of the national government. Thus the term “divided government,” which means the Congress is controlled by one party and the executive by another, became a pejorative. We had begun to understand the danger of governing a modern nation state which was institutionally based on the principle of inaction. Alas, the party system has not sufficed.
Let me summarize.
We built the Federal Government negatively – to do almost nothing.
Now more and more we are asking it to do nearly everything. The work of the Federal Government has expanded geometrically.
But the fundamental architecture (structure) of the government has remained almost entirely unchanged.
Worse, the most important structural changes we have made have weakened not strengthened the Federal Government.
There is nowhere left to send the dissatisfied and there is little “natural” wealth (we have pretty much used up our natural resources) to buy off the less fortunate. We used to send them west. Recall the Homestead Act. Now that “west” is gone.
In short, in terms of expectations, we have created a democracy. In terms of governance, we have retained a federated central government hamstrung by checks and balances – a government designed to impede rather than to promote.
Unfortunately President Obama went all in on health care. (Give him credit. He is a liberal acting like one.) But, despite Obamacare’s nods to federalism – nods which have only exacerbated the problem, the jig is up. Again, give Obama credit. He’s forced the issue. He’s given us an opportunity to decide: unitary or really federal? Whither the Federal Government?
What does all this mean for the Vermont independence movement?
During the last half century, the central government in America has taken on tremendous new responsibilities while its capacity to act on them has been limited and/or subsumed by politically necessary but horribly inefficient and even corrupt (mostly in the behavioral sense) processes and capacities. This is indeed proof that, although we may not articulate it well, we don’t trust the Federal Government and (worse) we are becoming more and more used to it – numbed to its inefficiency and waste. This argument reads: it may be sloppy, expensive and wasteful but it’s better than conceding (through structural change) that “one size does not (after all) fit all.”
In short, Obamacare is failing because it is simply impossible for our national political system (as it is currently structured) to produce and implement health care on a human scale with an acceptable degree of humanity or efficiency. We know this in our gut. But too many Americans continue to whistle in the dark; pretending that it might have worked better if it were “done right.” No! Obamacare (however well intentioned) is generically impossible.
It is up to the communitarians among us to make the case for health care (especially for the poor among us) which is more and more conceived, structured and implemented at the level of the patient and the patient’s friends and community. This is not the place to begin a discussion of the details of such a localized health care system. However in our book The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale (Chelsea Green Publishing), John McClaughry and I included a chapter on welfare policy at the local level which dealt with many of the objections to and (we felt) convincing reasons for a general decentralization of welfare policy to local governments. The principles and realities we discussed there are clearly operative today and encompass many of the conundrums posed by a more localized health care system.
To this I add in brief the following: The amazing rapidity of decentralizing potentials of “information technologies” (in a word, the application of interactive decentralized decision-making capacities) has advanced the case for decentralized health care beyond our most optimistic assessments when we wrote The Vermont Papers. To wit: I recently had a full hip replacement. These are now common. But their commonality does not detract from the fact that they are also major surgery. I spent (including the preliminaries and the operation itself) a total of forty-eight hours in the hospital (two nights). Most of the care I received was in my own home and conducted by my wife Melissa, a visiting nurse once a week, and a physical therapist twice a week. My home became a localized “hospital.”
These kinds of examples dominate modern culture. In short, the case for localized decision-making and policy implementation is as strong today as the case for centralized decision-making was a century ago. We are (as John Naisbett put it in Megatrends ) “riding the horse of history in the direction history is going.” Postindustrial technology, of course, is essentially information technology but every indication suggests that, with robotics, it will become the analog to “machine” technology of the Industrial Age. It is sad and even discouraging to observe that the majority of political operatives today still define the dynamics of public policy in centrist terms. These people are at least two generations behind the curve. The future is de-concentration, democracy and human scale decision-making, not concentration, representation and system scale decision-making.
The structure of our democracy is currently out of whack. Power to the states and within the states, power to the towns and within the towns, power to the individual and within each individual the awareness that it is in the small community alone that true distinctiveness can be accurately perceived, assessed, and rewarded – where authentic individualism is possible
We live in a democratic moment and place. Let us behave accordingly.