In our country and our state today, government is too big, growing too fast, too intrusive in our lives, costs too much, and delivers too little value for the dollar. I say so in homage to Ronald Reagan, 1911-2004, whose birthday is Tuesday.
For Americans as a free people, two centuries into our republican experiment with liberty and responsibility, government is not the solution – it is the problem. That’s as true now as when President Reagan asserted it in his 1981 inaugural, never mind the pendulum swing of polls and parties since then.
Picture Denver's west freeway at a recent evening rush hour. The snow-lined road inbound from ski country was jammed. While Bob eased his SUV through the traffic, Art and Jack peppered me (the only politician among four of us coming back from the slopes) with complaints about the apparently broken system evidenced by last fall’s campaign and this winter’s new officeholders.
Why all the negative ads, they grouched; why the platitudes and the sleaze? Why so many hacks jostling for power? And once in power, why the selfish grabs for advantage by each side? Why not more bipartisanship, more regard for the common good, more deference to world opinion? The ride home grew uncomfortably long as I parried the well-meant barrage.
As a constitutional conservative – that is, a believer in natural law and a realist about fallen humanity – I had rational answers for these familiar gripes from the minister, the oilman, and the financial guy. Faux unanimity is usually a mask for devilry, my line went. If fierce two-party competition seems messy, try a dozen parties splintering ideologically – or one party tyrannizing us all.
Democracy is indeed, as Churchill admitted, the worst system – except for all the others ever invented. The others weren’t buying it. “Yes but,” they objected as I gave each defense for America’s time-tested polity. Citizen disgruntlement (you’ve felt it too) hung like smog inside the crawling Toyota.
What finally reached these skeptics was the curse of scale. Suppose each of the many cars here on University took up four times the pavement it does now, I jabbed. Double our vehicle’s length and width, do the same to all these others in what is already close to gridlock, and the quadrupled burden would jam things completely, wouldn’t it?
Now I had them, because that’s exactly what has happened to the scale of government in American society since our grandparents’ time. From the founding to World War I, as the United States was creating unprecedented opportunity and widespread affluence, government at all levels took only about 10% of the national wealth. In America 2007 it takes about 40%.
Today’s quadrupled burden of “rendering to Caesar” is the worst cause of democratic dysfunction in our once lightly-governed republic. Pumping unhealthy amounts of money and power through government, as we now do, inevitably corrupts public life – even as it saps private initiative and enervates personal virtue.
This column was going to be about some bad bills in the Colorado legislature that would dump the Electoral College, monkey with campaign spending, and collectivize the workplace. I was also readying choice words for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s power play on pharmaceuticals, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s socialized medicine scheme, Colorado Gov. Ritter’s plan to rig the energy market, and the strange passion of my state's business leaders for higher taxes.
The SUV saga overtook all of those. But each is a symptom of the national malady I’ve diagnosed here. Collectivism and over-government are choking our sweet land of liberty. No exaggeration, they are. What’s the cure, short of a smashup and a new start from the ruins? Reagan would say we’d better start asking ourselves.