The Human Condition:

Politics on the Front Porch – January 9, 2022

Mount Vernon

I’ve been thinking for a while that things in these United States have gone—well, not wrong, but somewhat askew. This is not the fault of any particular party or politician. And it’s not an inherent flaw in our Constitution or the setup of our government. But the problem bothers me, and I think about it.

The issue may be that no one governmental structure was ever meant to fine-tune the control of a nation of 330 million people from dozens of ethnic traditions in an area that spans four time zones across an entire continent. This is just too big a job for any emperor, monarch, or president and his—and maybe her, eventually—administration. Europe has tried for three decades to be a unified place, but it remains a patchwork of individually governed countries under the fairly weak umbrella of a centralized union and common monetary scheme. China, for all its monolithic aspect, basically manages affairs at the province level with only policy suggestions handed down from the central government in Beijing. Yes, the Chinese Communist Party is invested in the central and all local governments, providing a unified vision, such as it is, but day-to-day internal processes are local.1

Perhaps the only long-term, centralized governments that ever worked were those of the Romans around the Mediterranean and the Mongols in Central Asia. But both of those allowed a large measure of local control and administration. And both of them ended up fragmenting into smaller empires with a decidedly ethnic flavor.

In the United States, the vision of the original founders was a union, not an all-encompassing national government. The states would take care of most internal decisions to suit the needs and desires of local populations—which in the original founding often came from different parts of Europe with different customs and expectations. The federal government would manage just a few functions like national defense, foreign policy, and interstate commerce. And that worked for most of the 19th century, with exceptions like the turmoil of the Civil War. For most of that time, the federal government survived on funding from tariffs and excise taxes—think of the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s. There was no federal income tax until 1913.

But then, under the push of progressive and liberal presidents like Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson, reacting to both internal and external stresses that they could see no other way of managing, the federal government grew. It extended its reach downward into affairs that used to be left to local decision-making. The executive power of the president expanded the complexity of administration and added cabinet posts for oversight of functions such as energy, education, and health that were never mentioned in the Constitution. And the Federal Reserve, which is a separate organization but operates under the federal government’s wing—with its chairman appointed by the president and approved by the congress—now takes responsibility for the control and orderly functioning of banking and the national economy.

Article 10 of the Bill of Rights, appended to the U.S. Constitution as originally adopted, grants the federal government only those powers described in the original text and, presumably, its subsequent amendments. The rest of the governing function is reserved to the states and to the people. But, as noted above in the instances of things like energy, education, and health, the federal government today makes decisions, writes laws, and issues regulations—which have the force of law and are adjudicated in the courts—far beyond the original enumerated powers.

For much of this—the legal underpinning, if not the political urging—we can blame the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. It was based on the Commerce Clause in Article 1, granting the federal government power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” The act was intended to regulate the railroads, which conducted business in several states and across state lines, and which were effectively ungovernable by any single state or by the conflicting laws of the various states where they operated. But that commerce clause has been expanded again and again, and it now governs almost any organization or enterprise that operates across state lines—which in a large and busy nation includes almost any function larger than a mom-and-pop grocery store.

Was this a weakness in the original Constitution and its intended creation of a union with limited governing power among strong and vibrant states? Or has it been exploited by politicians with a hunger for power on a wider—a nationwide—stage? And, as a corollary, could the small and limited national government of the pre–Civil War days have functioned effectively as a superpower on the international stage in the power vacuums left by the First and Second World Wars? I can’t answer those questions. But the thing is already done.

And still … in a way … the government that we have now is something like a jerry-rigged structure. It is as if someone had taken the front porch of a house—even one that extends around both sides of the house—and tried to turn it into the main structure and dominant living space. You can imagine the amount of new foundation supports, insulated wall construction, door and window installation and glazing, plumbing and electrical work, not to mention the planning and creation of new rooms and their assigned functions, that would be required to make this a success. Otherwise you would get a patchwork, a hodgepodge, and a lot of arguments and disappointments about how things are apportioned and whether the whole thing works at all.

But that’s what we’ve got. And the situation is made worse because congress has ceded its obligation, under the Constitution, to write effective and specific laws. These days, knowing that the administration’s various departments will work out the details, congress writes large, loopy acts running to thousands of words—sometimes thousands of pages—filled with wish fulfillment and desired end states. The real business of governing on the ground is then left up to the executive branch: the president and the cabinet departments that report to him—or maybe her, eventually.

This concentration of power starts to look a lot like an autocratic body, the domain of an emperor or king and the court of ministers and clerks that support the imperial or monarchical will. That’s not a good way to go, because as noted above, empires like those of the Romans and the Mongols eventually collapse.

But we might have a few hundred years of autocratic and hereditary rule to experience before that happens.

1. How do I know this? Because I’ve worked at companies that have had, or tried to have, dealings with China. The national ministries are more like think-tanks or policy-making institutions—functioning like our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—than actual governing bodies issuing regulations and executing business decisions like our Environmental Protection Agency or Department of Education. And when you ship products into China, you often have to change package labels and pay new tariffs when transshipping from one province to another. Vision in China is central; control is local.