Little Government will do. In fact, it does the trick just fine. Little ol’ bitty government, teeny-tiny government, “Who, little ol’ me?” government, Whos in Whoville government, so tiny Horton can hardly hear ‘em – it’s been getting the job done for years. And Americans have been buying it.
The mistake the left has too often made is to try to parade banners through the street, and seek paroxysms of popular sentiment and climactic Moments of Eventhood for its agenda. Signing ceremonies. Watershed votes in Congress. Campaign rallies in football stadiums with Greek column props. Transformation! Transformation we can all love – want, hanker after, give ourselves over to wholly. Civilizational jumping-off points. New Ages.
Consider environmental regulation. Many on the left want epic declarations on the matter. Manifestos. Raised fists. High-flown rhetoric. Sobbing and cheering. The passage of laws and treaties outlawing human progress, natural processes, and cosmic fate, with a transcendent feeling of righteousness and purpose. Hah! Take that, all you stupid, cretinous fools who disagreed and doubted!
But such categorical demonstrations of unified, march-us-over-the-cliff purpose – the superficial hallmarks of Big Government – are not actually necessary to have the virtual effect of big government. Little-Government Creep has a far better track record in that regard.
If Americans had been asked, in the 1970s, to fill stadiums and agitate for the outlawing of “too much carbon in the atmosphere, lest there be a climate apocalypse” they would have laughed themselves silly and told each other the latest Johnny Carson jokes on this hilarious topic. But they weren’t. They were asked instead to constitute an agency that would propose ways to protect us from pollution.
In the 1970s – I was here then – pollution was the stuff that came out of smokestacks, factory exhaust portals, and tailpipes. “Pollution” meant toxins: things that killed fish and made people cough and trees wither. There were direct effects to observe, and it didn’t strain credulity to agree that it was the effluvia of particular chemical processes that were causing these observable effects.
Even that observability and traceability required some amount of analysis and theory to link all the causes and effects together. Not every pollution alarm set off in the 1970s had a good foundation in empiricism. But still, particulates could be measured with a fair degree of accuracy in the local air, and fish were dying downstream of factory exhaust valves but not up. It mostly hung together, and the consequences were immediate and observable.
So the Environmental Protection Agency was created. Just a little bit of government, for a good, pragmatic, limited purpose. Just a little bitty, eensy-weensy bit of government, because who doesn’t want pollution curbed? Come on, who doesn’t want that?
And yet we know what the outcome has been. Thirty-plus years ago, I don’t know that any pundits or prognosticators foresaw, specifically, that a federal judge would eventually rule the element carbon to be a pollutant, and that the EPA would then propose to reduce its occurrence in the atmosphere, all based on a theory that has been shown, point by point, to have no basis in empiricism (and in particular, none that excludes alternative postulates).
The zeitgeist didn’t have us in the habit of thinking quite that big, back then. But there were pundits who predicted that the new EPA would eventually slip the surly bonds of its due-process charter, and boldly go where no man had gone before in finding obtrusive ways to regulate us. Naturally, those pundits were opposed with scoffing and scorn. Just as naturally, they were right.
The point here is not that we shouldn’t ever try to accomplish anything through the agency of government. The point is that opening the door to regulation through self-starting executive agencies is, inherently, opening the door to mission creep, effectively outside the checks and balances that constrain other projects of government. No one who has invoked that axiom has ever, even once, been wrong.
What we have in the US today, for the most part, is a growing political landfill into which constant deliveries are being made, by suspiciously malodorous trucks, of the zealous “good ideas” of Little Government. There’s so much Little Government, you can’t turn around without bumping into it.
Big, watershed Moments of Eventhood are by and large avoided: pace the Obama base, Americans have not chosen, at any given point, to be really freakin’ transformed. We remain wary of the trappings of Big Government: the soaring collectivist rhetoric, the jackboots, the paid street thugs, the loudspeakers, the lying propaganda, the Potemkin villages, the Riefenstahlesque public displays. Those, we’ve been properly warned about; those we see coming.
But I think the most important thing Americans have not come to grips with is the inevitability of Little Government metastasizing, and what to do about it. In every realm of communal life, from education to health care, taxation to environmental regulation, we have good reason to understand by now that regulatory agencies and regulatory approaches are never satisfied. They have never regulated enough; there is always more they want to get under their supervision. We’ve had that demonstrated to us in living color for nearly a century – and yet still we think we can constitute regulatory regimes and not see them grow beyond their charter.
We have not yet determined to overcome the inattentive regulatory impulse that is causing the floodwaters of Little Government to rise around us. And there’s an “asymmetry” here, because while Little Government can achieve the purposes of collectivist vision, without there ever being a watershed moment of public political transformation, the converse proposition is invalid. We can’t creep our way out of the Little Government deluge. We have to turn the spigot off – and that does require a Moment of Eventhood. It requires recognizing what we are doing to ourselves, and figuring out how to have effective government again without handing it our ATM card and the key to our very soul.
We haven’t recognized that yet, even today. We still aren’t thinking in terms of how the dynamic of agency-based regulation is itself the key problem we need to address. If we truly recognized it, we’d be talking about it much, much more than we are in the right-wing infosphere.
Can we regulate some things without selling our lives and our future to regulatory agencies? If so, how? This is a question we can extrapolate from the Founders in addressing, but there is less direct appeal to them available on this topic than on many others. Technology simply didn’t give the human regulatory impulse the scope, in 1789, that it gives today. This is one we will have to figure out on our own. Is there a middle path between zero or hardly any regulation – which was not actually the Founders’ proposition – and the surreal regulatory free-for-all we live with in 2010?
We’d better figure it out. Our metastasizing Little Government has already transformed us: a whole generation of Americans thinks that regulated health care-rationing programs are “the way health care works,” and has absolutely no idea that before Medicare and HMOs, things used to be done differently – more cheaply, and with greater discretion for every actor involved.
The fact that we’re even talking about denying each other salt in our diets, and snooping on each other’s home thermostats, is all the monument we need to the triumph of Little Government. Forty years ago, the great majority of Americans would have recoiled at such propositions, exclaiming “1984! Big Brother!” Now politicians who were elected as “Republicans” offer them, and there is every likelihood they will actually come to a vote. Little Government has done its work. We can’t afford to accept it as our M.O., and focus only on the absence of monster hammer-and-sickle rallies, any longer.
Cross-posted at Hot Air.