What is to be Done?
Among those who pay attention, it is widely accepted that something is wrong, very wrong with American politics. But unease acknowledged, what is to be done?
Donald J. Devine's America's Way Back offers some answers, lots of them. It is a serious book jam-packed with statistical detail and philosophical discussions.
Devine began his career as a political scientist at the University of Maryland (College Park), even gaining tenure before moving on to the "real" world. There he served as an advisor to President Reagan, then headed up the U.S. Office of Personnel Management under Reagan (eliminating some 100,000 non-defense bureaucrats), moved on to the vice-chairmanship of the Conservative Union and now serves as a senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. A better résumé for diagnosing and (hopefully) curing the ills of American politics is hard to imagine.
Devine is not shy about what ails us. The book's first paragraph identifies the culprits: economic stagnation, moral exhaustion, and looming bankruptcy thanks to out-of-control entitlements. These are horrific problems and he asserts that both liberals and conservatives chug along with solutions that never worked and that no amount of tinkering will help. The source of this failure is that today's leaders have failed to identify the source of our tribulations -- the total triumph of state welfare progressivism, a belief that a huge central government engorged with billions in tax revenue and the power to borrow yet more billions can expertly govern.
So, illness identified, what's the cure? Across the board tax cuts? Eliminating cumbersome anti-business regulations? How about electing "real" conservatives versus the GOP offering up muddle-headed moderates like John McCain? Devine's answer: none of the above. The problem is more fundamental and a solution requires returning to the Constitution's bedrock principles of federalism. This restoration, so to speak, will harmonize the twin ideals of freedom and tradition. Now, the tradition of 1788 (i.e., the Constitution's separation of power, checks and balances, and dispersed political power will bring freedom in 2013 by easing the burden of an out-of-control central government.
To illustrate his point, Devine describes Washington's botched Hurricane Katrina response. To condense a long story, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), operating hundreds of miles away in Washington, immediately preempted local aid with ill-fated consequences. Assistance efforts like Florida's offer of five-hundred airboats came to naught. FEMA also blocked a flotilla of private rescue boats. Help from abroad met a similar "thanks, but no thanks" fate. Even Washington's effort to provide emergency housing assistance was strangled in red tape. Meanwhile large Washington bureaucracies like the FBI and the Corps of Engineers were unable to coordinate their efforts.
Almost in spite of this monopolistic central government power, the private sector and local agencies successfully intervened. The Red Cross dispatched thousands of volunteers, Eli Lilly sent 40,000 vials of insulin and Anheuser-Bush supplied 2.5 million cans of drinking water, among many other forms of private assistance. All and all, the private sector, with the cooperation of locals, far outshone Washington's ham-fisted FEMA.
The bulk of America's Way Back catalogues Washington's ineffectiveness and corresponding coercion to square circles that are beyond squaring. Most are already familiar to aficionados of big government mismanagement: fiascos like ObamaCare and printing more money to jump-start a sluggish economy. To his credit, Devine hardly spares Republicans in their misguided embrace of the bloated social welfare state, for example, George W. Bush's hugely expensive 2003 prescription drug bill that boosted Medicare's unfunded liability. My personal favorites involve "investing in children"- -- 105 national programs to encourage math, reading, and science plus seventy bureaus in six agencies to feed hungry children. And on and on.
For Devine this debt-generating ineptitude inherent to government has become super-sized. Decision-makers lack any first-hand contact with targeted problems. We've come a long way from the era when public assistance to the poor was administered locally and welfare officials personally visited the needy to check progress. Or, if warranted, insist that the recipient of public generosity split some wood at the public woodlot. By contrast, in today's bloated Washington it is far easier to fiddle with bureaucratic rules and if progress stalls, request yet more money and more staff.
The hard part is putting the toothpaste of big state progressivism back in the tube. Alas, Devine is vague here, largely limiting himself to identifying potential troops to be mobilized, for example, home-schoolers, various university-based independent centers, academically inclined foundations and most relevant, the Tea Party movement. Good luck, but I am not optimistic.
Now for the really bad news: options deteriorate almost by the day. Increasingly large numbers of American are hooked on entitlements like food stamps and subsidized housing and are disinclined to surrender their goodies to somebody's else's idyllic vision of constitutional freedom. Further add millions of immigrants who quickly discover the government's generous trough. And, for good measure, the very ideas of decentralization and localism just don't resonate into today's pandering campaigns. I suspect that any candidate preaching a return to constitutional principles -- not some new handout -- would be DOA.
So, when all is said and done, the verdict on America's Way Back is a mixed one: an insightful though sometimes slow-going read on what ails us albeit a bit short on a cure. But, as the Chinese would say, a 1000 mile journey begins with a single step and I cannot think of a better first step than America's Way Back.