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A Friendship for Our Times

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Jon Elswick

I've been thinking a great deal about the close friendship between Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It puzzled -- and sometimes even infuriated -- their followers, but it is a model we should all follow, especially now.

Some of the more distressing phenomena in contemporary American culture are the calls for people to put aside or end personal relationships -- which should be far more important in our lives -- because of political viewpoints -- which should be far less so.

This is happening, at least in part, because government has become far too involved in people's lives. When the government controls the most significant aspects of your life -- who you can marry, how you raise and educate your children, whether you can live by your beliefs -- then disputes over control of government become deeply personal and fraught with monumental individual significance.

We take for granted (and many don't even know) how America's founding was based upon what were then radical notions of individual liberty. In contrast to what were then millennia-old "noblesse oblige" views that the monarchy was God-ordained to rule over others for their own good, our country's founders believed that, given the proper conditions, the average person was capable of running his or her life.

The government that was instituted was therefore limited, precisely to protect those liberties from the encroachments of those who would insist that government -- monarchical, dictatorial (of the proletariat or otherwise) or even tyrannical majorities -- can better decide what's good for you. Those people exist in every age, and the founders knew it.

Until fairly recently, our government expanded largely to better regulate commerce, to curb abuses that private industry failed to remediate (and, in some instances, caused), and to expand and enforce constitutional liberties for populations who had been prevented from enjoying them.

These have been good things. But they are not arguments for further expansion of government, for scrapping the limits on government in the Constitution or -- God help us -- for some kind of collectivist revolution.

To the contrary, the ability of our Constitution to adapt to the changes that have been made since 1789 is both a tribute to its drafters and a testament to the profound rectitude of its underlying principles.

When you study revolutionary movements throughout history -- and, interestingly enough, poverty in the modern era -- you see startlingly similar causes: the inability to own property; the inability to profit from the fruits of one's own labor; and oppressive governments that are accessible only to the rich, the powerful and the politically well-connected.

That's easy to spot when the government is authoritarian; there, power exists for the sole purpose of enriching the ruler and his/her friends and family. But it's also true of nominally "free" governments where there are elaborate webs of legal and regulatory bureaucracies, all of which were presumably created, implemented and inevitably expanded "for the benefit of the people."

The motives may be different, but -- and this part is critical to understand -- the result is the same: The average person has no chance to navigate these successfully. Individuals and communities remain poor; they cannot exercise their agency or live up to their potential.

Leaders of authoritarian regimes tend not to care (until they're forced to). But even in more benevolent -- but ill-informed -- governments, the nearly universal response is to double-down on the practices and policies that are causing the problems in the first place. This is a mistake.

Good intentions cannot salvage a bad system.

Countries and economic regions that have successfully moved populations out of poverty have tended to do so by reducing supervisory bureaucratic burdens, not increasing them. The best example is entrepreneurial culture in the United States, which is a direct result of political liberties and relatively limited government here. Impoverished and even poorly educated people have come from all over the world and succeeded here.

What does any of this have to do with Scalia and Ginsburg?

Many Americans are struggling to articulate a defense of limited government that survives the heated and hateful accusations people are throwing at one another, and I wanted to give it a shot.

In general, even on what we call "moral" issues, I tend to prefer persuasion to political force. I have supported the ability of people to live their lives free of the interference of others who happen to disagree with their choices. But I have grown dismayed by the way those efforts have morphed into calls for government to force people to agree, to state publicly that they agree and to require their children are taught to agree, all of this on peril of political/legal sanction if they do not.

That is profoundly un-American, and I oppose it.

I also oppose -- passionately -- calls for our representative democracy and free-market capitalistic economy to be abolished and replaced by raw majoritarianism and/or a top-down, command-and-control system designed and run by government.

There is ample and diverse proof that the most brilliant or benevolent human beings cannot successfully or effectively operate such a system for 330 million-plus people. (And it goes without saying that the people who run any government are neither the most brilliant nor the most benevolent.)

The reasons for that impossibility are too long to go into here, but suffice it to say that they are structural, not personal and not ideological, and that they apply whether the institution is public or private, governmental or corporate.

I resist the continued expansion of the federal government, because I believe that most people can run their own lives, and that the best assistance for those who cannot or will not is provided at a level closer to them. I, too, want to see poverty and other human suffering reduced, but I have seen that huge bureaucracies designed for that purpose not only fail utterly but also destroy other beneficial institutions -- marriage, family, community, democracy, liberty -- in the process.

The trend we are seeing of ripping families, friendships and other relationships apart because of disagreements over the direction of government is perhaps the best proof that more government entanglement in our lives is not a good thing. If we get to the point where government matters more than the people who should matter most, then it matters too much.

I think that, whatever their differences, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Ginsburg both knew this. Certainly, they lived by it.

We should, too.

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