Paul Greenberg

The important thing is that nothing come between Washington and the people, rulers and ruled. Not the states or church or family or conscience or any of the intermediate layers of government and society that have separated them till now. Edmund Burke called them the "little platoons" of a nation, and was much attached to them. But they're outdated. Modern times demand modern remedies -- organization, control, direction from the top. That way, all our needs will be recognized and met. Even invented. It'll be nice. Why not lie back and enjoy it?

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A French visitor to this then new democracy saw it coming. In his two-volume guide to "Democracy in America" that remains the most relevant study of our system, he pointed out the two great contending forces in the American psyche -- the love of liberty and the drive for equality. His conclusion:

Democratic nations are peculiarly susceptible to a soft form of despotism that doesn't so much dictate to its people as embrace them, infantilize them, smother them ever so gently in its all-encompassing arms.

We would all be saved the trouble of making our own decisions, providing our own necessities (like health care), and generally thinking for ourselves. Which was always a bother anyway.

Such a regime would cover "the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. ... Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies a people."

The important thing is that nothing come between the caretaker State and its subjects, formerly citizens. So there will be no confusion about who is in charge, no divided loyalties with each of us going our own way, following our own ideas rather than melting into the warm ocean of The People Yes. But the road to serfdom must be smooth, broad, safe -- an interstate compared to the crooked little roads each of us might choose. It'll be more efficient that way.

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In a different era, when the nation was paralyzed by a Great Depression and its own fears and uncertainties, Americans looked to Washington not just for leadership but salvation. How nice it would be if there were no such things as unemployment, uncertainty, instability, recurring crises and all the other ills that a free people is heir to. Why not pass a law to that effect?

It was called the National Industrial Recovery Act and was passed in the first flood of New Deal emergency legislation in 1933 -- toward the end of the fabled Hundred Days. It covered just about everything in the economy -- every wage paid for every job, every price for every item manufactured, even down to every chicken slaughtered in New York City.

But it didn't last. The designers of this grand scheme had overlooked a detail or two, like the Constitution of the United States and a Supreme Court willing and able to enforce it. The day of reckoning came May 27, 1935, when the Supreme Court's classical conservatives (like Charles Evans Hughes) and classical liberals (like Louis Dembitz Brandeis) united to strike down the whole scheme as unconstitutional. The court's decision was unanimous. (Schechter Poultry v. U.S., popularly known as the Sick Chicken Case.)

Why? The law was too broad, too detailed, too intrusive. It delegated comprehensive legislative powers to an all-powerful, unelected federal agency, the National Recovery Administration, Gen. Hugh S. Johnson in command. Much the way Obamacare provides that the vast American health-care industry, comprising roughly one-sixth of the national economy, be minutely regulated by a select, secretive, arbitrary bureaucracy.

The Supreme Court is due to begin its hearings on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the formal name for Obamacare, come Monday, March 26th.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.