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2020: The year of government failure
The United States of America is a rejection of government overreach, or at least it was. When England started up the colonies along the eastern seaboard of what is now the U.S., England was probably the freest country/kingdom in the world. The English aristocracy enjoyed protections against the monarch guaranteed by the Magna Carta and common law, and that tradition as well as the remoteness and sparse population of the colonies resulted in a largely laissez faire approach to governance. The colonists took advantage and set up colonial governments and did their thing chiseling a civilization out of the fringes of North America.
As the colonies grew in population and wealth, and as England incurred great expense fighting the French and Indian War in the American frontier, England started to get interested in having some more control, and instituted new taxes, requirements that colonists house English soldiers and other restrictions. The colonists tired of these government impositions and decided to form their own country so that wouldn’t happen again. A country in which the God-given rights of the individual protected him (and eventually her) from the excesses of government.
The Constitution incorporated a suspicion of the excesses of government into the structure of America’s federal system. Starting with the premise that human beings are fallible and self-interested, the founders established a system to blunt the ability of any one person or any group of people to impose their will upon others via the mechanisms of government. States were given wide latitude to govern themselves (initially, even the Bill of Rights did not restrict state action), and what power the federal government had was subjected to a host of structural impediments: three branches of government that were empowered to check the excesses of each other; and two houses of Congress, with different election and appointment procedures meant to impede the translation of the impulses of fallen human beings into laws to govern other human beings. The American system was designed from the bottom up to keep government, in particular the federal government, from doing much.
To say the least, Americans’ expectations of government have changed since the founding. Beginning in the early 20th Century with the first Progressive era (we may be living through the beginning of the second now), we’ve grown to bloated maturity a leviathan around the skeleton of a minnow. We ask all levels of government to do all manner of things these days, from the quotidien (provide material sustenance via various forms of transfer payments to millions upon millions of people) to the epochal (protect us from the effects of a global pandemic).
The year 2020 shows that we would be well-served to incorporate the founders’ skepticism of government power. How many billions upon billions of dollars have been spent on the CDC since its inception, only to find the agency flatfooted and confused when the very type of pandemic it was intended to combat arrived? How can Minneapolis allow a police officer to weather complaint after complaint until he kills a man by kneeling on his neck? How can big city governments around the country fail, sometimes willfully, to protect people and property from harm by rioters? How can Oregon raise taxes on unprofitable businesses to help fund a school system that is closed?
Because, as the founders understood but we have forgotten, human beings are self-interested and even when well-intentioned, often don’t really know what they’re doing. The modern focus is on the myth that if we select the right person to lead us, everything will be alright. This impulse has been fed by America’s nearly incalculable good fortune of having two of the finest political leaders in human history – George Washington and Abraham Lincoln – lead the country through its two most perilous episodes. But America has not always been so lucky, and it has had its share of leaders introduce or magnify peril (see, e.g., James Buchanan and Woodrow Wilson). The thing that has allowed us to make it through those episodes is a strong system that prevents any one person or party from running roughshod over everyone else.
But as Americans have increasingly sought to quench their thirst for support, satisfaction, stability and meaning from government, at the expense of religion, family and community, the system intended to restrain government and its leaders from acting have gradually eroded. The founders’ system to protect Americans from the unalterable human conditions of greed and incompetence, armed with the literal and figurative bayonet of government-sanctioned force, teeters today on the brink. The manifold government failures of 2020 should demonstrate to us the folly of discarding the singular American precept.
Beginning next Friday, instead of receiving an email from me called the Bend Business Roundup, you’ll receive an email from me called the Oregon Roundup. The content will be mostly the same – politics, law and other stuff I find interesting.
I’m making the change because most of the stuff I write about these days isn’t Bend-specific, and I don’t really write about business all that much anymore. I’m sure there will still be some Bend stuff in there, just under a name that more accurately reflects the overall content of the newsletter.
The email will still come from me, but it will be from a new email address, email@example.com. It’s possible that your spam filter will object to the email coming from a new address, so if you find yourself wondering next Friday where your Roundup is, and you haven’t yet blocked me, check your spam filter. Or, you can block me.
I sent out the first BBR back on May 19, 2017. It was (a lot) shorter than the current iteration. I’ve enjoyed writing the BBR weekly(ish) for the past three-plus years and look forward to a calm, orderly and peaceful transfer of power to the Oregon Roundup.
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Have a great weekend!
What I do:
EagerLaw PC – A business and real property law firm in Bend, Oregon.
Insite LGA Corp. – A campaign consulting, strategic communications and local government monitoring firm.
Waste Alert – Local government monitoring for the solid waste and recycling industry.
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