The Fundamental Transformation of America

From Niall Ferguson:

In “Democracy in America,” published in 1833, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the way Americans preferred voluntary association to government regulation. “The inhabitant of the United States,” he wrote, “has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to it . . . only when he cannot do without it.”

Unlike Frenchmen, he continued, who instinctively looked to the state to provide economic and social order, Americans relied on their own efforts. “In the United States, they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion. There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.”

What especially amazed Tocqueville was the sheer range of nongovernmental organizations Americans formed: “Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations . . . but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fetes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.”

Tocqueville would not recognize America today. Indeed, so completely has associational life collapsed, and so enormously has the state grown, that he would be forced to conclude that, at some point between 1833 and 2013, France must have conquered the United States.

The decline of American associational life was memorably documented in Robert Puttnam’s seminal 1995 essay “Bowling Alone,” which documented the exodus of Americans from bowling leagues, Rotary clubs and the like. Since then, the downward trend in “social capital” has only continued. According to the 2006 World Values Survey, active membership even of religious associations has declined from just over half the population to little more than a third (37%). The proportion of Americans who are active members of cultural associations is down to 14% from 24%; for professional associations the figure is now just 12%, compared with more than a fifth in 1995. And, no, Facebook is not a substitute.

Instead of joining together to get things done, Americans have increasingly become dependent on Washington. On foreign policy, it may still be true that Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus. But when it comes to domestic policy, we all now come from the same place: Planet Government.

As the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Clyde Wayne Crews shows in his invaluable annual survey of the federal regulatory state, we have become the regulation nation almost imperceptibly. Excluding blank pages, the 2012 Federal Register—the official directory of regulation—today runs to 78,961 pages. Back in 1986 it was 44,812 pages. In 1936 it was just 2,620.

[…]

Genius that he was, Tocqueville saw this transformation of America coming. Toward the end of “Democracy in America” he warned against the government becoming “an immense tutelary power . . . absolute, detailed, regular . . . cover[ing] [society’s] surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way.”

Tocqueville also foresaw exactly how this regulatory state would suffocate the spirit of free enterprise: “It rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces [the] nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

If that makes you bleat with frustration, there’s still hope.

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The Ideological Lopsidedness of Government Lawyers

From David French:

Thanks to the TaxProf blog and to Instapundit, I discovered this chart detailing political giving by government lawyers:

Presidential Candidate Contributions

With certain limitations understood (we don’t know the affiliations of non-donors), the chart above looks more like the political affiliations of Ivy League women’s-studies departments than those of an allegedly impartial federal bureaucracy.

The civil-service system was designed to replace the spoils system, which — in addition to creating chaotic rushes of office-seekers with each change of administration — packed political hacks into important administrative positions. A civil service was supposed to change that unacceptable reality by placing the administration of the more neutral functions of the government into the hands of dispassionate professionals. Thus the strong federal job security in the civil service, greater security than enjoyed by virtually any private-sector employee. The job security — so the argument goes — was necessary to prevent the re-emergence of blatant political patronage.

But what if the combination of increasingly activist government with strong bureacratic bias re-creates federal service as a kind of permanent spoils system for the Left? Isn’t it inevitable that this leftist bureaucracy will eventually view itself not as a servant for all citizens but as an instrument of its own righteous ideology?

If the recent history of our universities is any guide, the products of a leftist bureacratic monoculture will be characterized by the following:

Ignorance: Groups of like-minded people are notoriously incurious about the ideas and perspectives of dissenters.

Condescension: They don’t let ignorance stand in the way of a bulletproof sense of moral and intellectual superiority.

Hatred: Since all the good people they know agree with them, they ascribe the worst of motives to the other side, believing them to be motivated by little more than greed and bigotry.

And, finally . . .

Fanaticism: Cass Sunstein described the “law of group polarization” like this: “In a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments.” In other words, when like-minded individuals deliberate, their common views grow more extreme over time.

We conservatives have a problem with Big Government, no matter who’s running it. But we also have a particular problem with this big government, as key agencies are increasingly staffed and run by individuals who wield enormous power, cannot be fired, and despise roughly half the American population. When Barack Obama urges supporters to “punish our enemies,” there are many federal employees only too willing to comply.

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You Have Faltered

I’m not here as a serf or a vassal. I’m not begging my lords for mercy. I’m a born free American woman. Wife, mother, and citizen. And I’m telling my government that you’ve forgotten your place. It is not your responsibility to look out for my well-being and to monitor my speech. It’s not your right to assert an agenda. Your post, the post that you occupy, exists to preserve American liberty. You’ve sworn to perform that duty, and you have faltered.

— Becky Gerritson