Federal debt threatens liberty as well as prosperity

(Centennial Fellow) First in the Constitution, then in various laws and such devices as a debt ceiling, we Americans keep trying to keep the federal government from disastrous excess. And our representatives keep backing up—saying that’s OK, overreach all you want. Forget liberty. Forget economic prudence. Go for it.

Consider, for instance, this hot–topic debt ceiling, which has basically one reason to exist—fiscal accountability to help forestall fiscal atrocity. So what? Congress routinely raises the ceiling when higher debt demands, making the ceiling a joke. It’s like having speed limit signs electronically adjusted to however fast cars are going, meaning there are no real speed limits and no tickets—just accidents.

This government of ours happens to be going unbelievably fast, a trillion dollars indebtedness faster each year over the next 10 if we stick to President Barack Obama’s original budget plan. That means a mighty collision could be coming. It means something else, too, for there is a substrata evil to this spending madness.

It is the growth of an immensely powerful, anti–democratic administrative state that tethers our freedoms through never–ending regulation while vastly diminishing some good, old American ways that are not an invention of overly romantic imaginations, but instead a very real and crucial part of much of the best to be found in us.

One online writer, Christopher Chantrill, traces the origins of the administrative state back to 18th century French and German kings squashing pesky guilds and lords. It began to appear in the United States by means of increasingly interventionist government in the late 19th century, according to another account, and Woodrow Wilson is said to have been an early 20th century enthusiast, wanting to turn the inefficiencies of self–governance over to ultra–competent experts. With the New Deal in the 1930s, that dream got a potent push.

Today, the administrative state is best exemplified by agencies with astonishing authority and in creeping, crawling, biting, always multiplying rules embedded in some 163,000 pages that the government uses to make sure there is very little you do that is not its business.

As Robert Moffit of Heritage Foundation points out in an online piece, we got here partly because Congress keeps wanting to address problems it has no idea how to address. It therefore passes laws that leave details to bureaucrats, including thousands of new regulation–pages already drawn up for Obamacare.

A consequence is less of the civic energy that as long ago as the 1830s was observed by Alexis de Tocqueville in “Democracy in America.” He talked about how we were forever creating big, small, effective, futile, widely inclusive and narrowly exclusive associations for anything and everything, whereas in his native country of France, there was nothing like that. In France, there was government to do all that work instead of proud people freely exercising innovative self–sufficiency.

Oh, how we love the French ways, I guess, because we are getting there, as you see in Planned Parenthood saying it just can’t make it in this rough world without government funding. Yes it can. There are in fact some hugely effective non–profits that do get along without government help and inevitable, often handicapping controls. But where there’s an administrative state, there is incessant knocking on its door, a knocking that portends an end of our exceptionalism.

One way to begin to deal with the administrative state is to do as the House Republicans want and cut the debt over time by however much the ceiling is raised. An immediate reduction could be the $200 billion in duplicated programs found in an audit. Then restructure entitlements and reduce everything else while regularly reviewing old laws for repeal and having a congressional vote on any expensive new regulatory scheme the agencies come up with. All we have to gain is a future.


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado and a Centennial Institute Fellow.

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