I think America has too many people in it.
No, this isn’t an anti-immigration screed; it’s a commentary on the inability of a political community of 313 million individuals to engage in limited self-government without the limiting principle of subsidiarity. The government shutdown is a symptom of the American abandonment of the robust federalism that was initially embedded in our Constitution. I contend that the acrimonious debates in Congress are the fruit of a political community that is too big, where the citizenry is no longer united by the common bonds that should naturally arise within a healthy polis.
The Ugly Mess
Our current governmental shutdown is the result of a Constitution that is essentially broken. It is an unfit tool for managing this particular country.
The Constitution worked when it was originally written because it could actually maintain the federalism that the framers of the Constitution desired. Thus, the small, largely local/regional governments of the states had much more power than the federal government, which chiefly served to provide for the military and to regulate commerce between the states.
In limiting the power of the federal government this way, the American Constitution (whatever its shortcomings) was a model of subsidiarity. This principle, elaborated upon in every social encyclical from Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno onward, holds that the social needs of a community should be provided for firstly through private activity (principally through the Church), and then through political solutions starting from the smallest and most localized governmental entities outwards. In holding to this principle, societal ills tend to be alleviated more often by individuals who are most closely involved, knowledgeable, and concerned.
Smaller and more localized political communities also deal with social issues that the individual citizen can understand more readily, allowing him to participate in the political community more effectively. There’s a reason why direct democracy works in small New England hamlets but would not work in New York City.
The wisdom of subsidiarity has its roots in ancient political theory. Aristotle in his Politics discusses the bonds that unite the individual members of the polis in its common activity of promoting a virtuous society. The citizens of the polis are bound by ties of affection that arise from shared cultural beliefs and communal interests. The bonds arising from our interactions with our fellow citizens are natural. Citizens of similar cultural, political, regional, and even religious origins will have more concern for one another’s well-being than, say, someone from Alabama would have for someone in San Francisco.
So What’s the Problem?
In the American context, the primacy of state governments has been all but wiped out. It is now the federal government where much of the political and economic interests of our population are decided.
Why? The problem lies with the fact that the Constitution grants the federal government authority to regulate interstate commerce. This provision was something much more limited before the advent of railroads, the industrial revolution, automobiles, interstate highways, and the internet. Unlike in the 18th Century, essentially every industry now operates in interstate markets. Further, after the Supreme Court massively expanded the definition of “interstate commerce” in the 1930s, it resulted in a situation in which the federal government could regulate almost the entire economic life of the country. Between this development, the federal income tax, the New Deal and the Great Society, the federal government is now the chief “political community” to which most Americans belong.
Thus, economically and politically, the federal government holds an undue place of importance, one much larger than that envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Rather than my political life being centered around the naturally-arising social, religious, cultural, and economic interests of my particular region, I am forced to have my tax dollars and economic life controlled largely by the political whim of individuals from different regions, with economic, social, and political interests completely opposed to my own.
Instead of the bulk of our taxation going into well-directed, limited social assistance that benefits citizens within our own “societies,” we wind up having all 313 million Americans being forced to live under (and bear the cost for) a taxation and spending regime desired by the 65 million people who happened to vote for Barack Obama. Many of that original 313 million (especially the 60 million who voted for Romney) come from different regions with different cultural, political, and religious values from those of the average Obama voter. The bonds of political unity that Aristotle thought would naturally arise in the context of the polis are utterly lacking. As a conservative originally from rural Central California, I find it hard to experience social, cultural, or political bonds with individuals from San Francisco, let alone Boston or New York.
Hence, the Stalemate
And therein lies the problem we face today with the government shutdown. I chafe at the idea that I should be forced to live under and pay for the Affordable Care Act, something that a majority of American citizens, scores of millions of people, do not want to do. It’s one thing to lose a political fight when I’m in the minority of a small political community of similarly situated individuals. It’s another thing for some poor sap in Montana to be forced to drop his insurance just because people in Los Angeles and New York thought it was a good idea to put Barack Obama in the White House. Why should we have to live under their rule, when we share no bonds of political community?
The politicians who represent the sap from Montana, seeing his constituents’ total opposition to the Affordable Care Act, will naturally stand implacably opposed to funding it. The calls for compromise and civility in resolving the current impasse fall on deaf ears, because our wildly bloated political community is not bound strongly enough. It is too big to expect everyone to have a common understanding from which to engage one another. We might as well be speaking in different languages.
As long as our chief political community continues to be centered in a federal government that encompasses all 313 million of us, and as long as the American left continues its path of radicalization, there is going to be more and more hostile disagreement within Congress. My dream is that such disagreement could someday lead to a strengthened federalism, in which people with differing political worldviews can simply agree to “live and let live” in more particularized and natural political communities, giving the states the chief governing authority over the individual economic and political lives of citizens. Nevertheless, I’m afraid that it’s just a dream.