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Is Progressivism Too Big to Fail?

Has Obamacare done permanent damage to the case for progressive government? And if it has, will the sentiment last?

Those on the left have started to worry – and those on the right have dared to hope – that the Obamacare slow-motion train wreck may have done permanent damage to the case for progressive government. A record number of Americans (56 percent) now say that providing universal health insurance is not the job of the government, up from a low of 28 percent in 2006. People are questioning the philosophy behind the program, not just its mechanics.

But will this sentiment last? Is there any reason to believe that large numbers of Americans are experiencing serious reservations about their century-long romance with big government?

To answer this question, we need to recall their first coy flirtations with the welfare state. But even before that, we need to remember how unlikely this all seemed from the vantage point of the American founding.

Consider Alexander Hamilton’s reasoning in Federalist 17:

It is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the powers with which they are connected; because the attempt to exercise those powers would be as troublesome as it would be nugatory; and the possession of them, for that reason, would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national government.

Of the Founders, Hamilton’s understanding of human nature was perhaps the most subtle. He would himself be accused of secretly desiring and preparing the ground for an all-powerful federal government. But he could not understand why any federal officeholder would wish to micromanage the particular affairs of local communities–or how it could be done.

Nor could Hamilton imagine the American people viewing the federal government as the great provider of all things good. Hamilton writes:

It is a known fact in human nature, that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. Upon the same principle that a man is more attached to his family than to his neighborhood, to his neighborhood than to the community at large, the people of each State would be apt to feel a stronger bias towards their local governments than towards the government of the Union; unless the force of that principle should be destroyed by a much better administration of the latter.

Given that state and local government tended to the “ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice,” Hamilton said, people would view the local authority as the most “immediate and visible guardian of life and property.” Meanwhile, since the national government’s administration of matters less immediate and more general took place largely out of view, the people would never pledge their primary political allegiance to it.

In essence, human nature, as Hamilton read it, made the consolidation of power in the national government unlikely. Ambitious leaders would find no satisfaction in managing the details of local life, even if it were possible. The people would have little affection for a distant government and, therefore, give it little power over the details of their lives.
Hamilton’s analysis is plausible, but then we wonder: how did we get from there to here? Where did our class of nursemaid statesmen come from–or the increasingly infantilized population they command?

Alexis de Tocqueville argued that, contrary to the expectations of most, despotism, rather than anarchy, was the real danger in a democracy. Democracies love equality–and the quickest path to equality is always down, not up. A leveled-off populace would sense its weakness and look for help to the strongest “friend” it could find: the national government. With perhaps the most charitable intentions, leaders would accept the charge and provide protection and aid to those apparently most in need of them.

But then another part of human nature kicks in, says Tocqueville. Absent any real personal affection, compassion for the weak quickly turns into contempt for their (growing) weakness, exacerbated by their increasing dependence upon the government.

The American people were slow to start down this road. As Tocqueville himself suggested, their long experience of freedom and local self-government would counter this tendency well into the 19th century. But the rise of national populism, the influence of industrial capitalism, and the experience of centralized federal authority during the Civil War opened up room for a reconceptualization of the American regime.

Individual and corporate wealth on a previously-unimaginable scale (one list includes six late-19th/early-20th century Americans among the top ten wealthiest people of all time) led to the first American mass political movement (the People’s Party) to advocate big government for the little guy: “We believe that the powers of government–in other words, of the people–should be expanded…as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”

But why assume that Big Government was the friend of the people any more than Big Business? Mark Twain’s satirical warning about government corruption in his Gilded Age (1873) should have given the populists pause:

They don’t acquit, they don’t condemn. They just say, “Charge not proven.” It leaves the accused in a kind of a shaky condition before the country, it purifies Congress, it satisfies everybody, and it doesn’t seriously hurt anybody. It has taken a long time to perfect our system, but it is the most admirable in the world, now.

Nevertheless, the Democratic Party embraced a moderate version of the People’s Party program. In 1896, they nominated the midwestern populist William Jennings Bryan as their presidential candidate. The first major step in reorienting American politics was complete.

Over the next decade, Progressives took command of both political parties, adding a fashionable East Coast elitism and a “scientific” confidence in expert planners to the movement. A generation later, the results were clearly evident in FDR’s 1932 Commonwealth Club speech, as he matter-of-factly redefined the role of American government: “The issue of Government has always been whether individual men and women will have to serve some system of Government or economics, or whether a system of Government and economics exists to serve individual men and women.” The manifest difference between securing individual rights and serving individuals can be seen in the massive expansion of the size and scope of the federal government that followed FDR’s election to the presidency.

What does all this history suggest about the prospects for a Obamacare-inspired reorientation of American politics in our day?

The electoral success of political parties may rise and fall with changes in the economy, demographic shifts, real or plausible charges of incompetency, and the like. Democrats, in other words, will probably regret supporting Obamacare in 2014 or 2016.

But a reorientation of politics–permanently transforming both parties–generally requires new circumstances and new principles that meet those circumstances. The worst-case failure of Obamacare may create new circumstances (the destruction of the private health insurance industry). But unless Americans (re-)embrace a culture of local-oriented, market-driven voluntary action, they will likely replace Obamacare with an even more comprehensive government “service” solution. There’s little reason for optimism yet.

On our current trajectory, the ultimate “new circumstances” will come when the federal government runs out of money to fund the nanny state. The sharp blow of reality may, then, awaken some of the spirit of the founding era, in the same way that a piercing headache reminds one of the virtues of sobriety. It would be much better for us all if, instead, the would-be great American statesmen would once again choose to satisfy their ambition by liberating free men and the American people would rebuild the personal, familial, and local attachments capable of delivering us from the approaching progressive storm.

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