Ron Fournier in the National Journal recently wrote about "The End of Government as We Know It." His piece centers around the theories of a writer named Nicco Mele, author of "The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath." Mele states that "our institutions have in fact failed us," and argues that radical connectivity -- the always-on ability to instantaneously transfer massive amounts of data, afforded by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media -- engenders a "bottom-up ethos" that now pervades society. Contemporary culture expects progress and social change not through giant organizations, but through these human grassroots networks that have germinated primarily within the Internet. This ethos, Mele claims, is fundamentally redefining the relationship of the individual not only to government, but to every major institution: "businesses, entertainment, military, schools, media, religion." Fournier takes this further to state that in order to function in the future order, our major institutions must understand radical connectivity -- and even after they do, they will need to become more nimble. If they do not accept this new reality, they will perish as we know them.
All this sounds very forward-thinking and beneficial. Instead of a three-piece, perhaps a track suit. Wouldn't the U.S. government benefit from this sort of makeover? It would be a much more casual look, at least.
In closely examining Fournier's argument, a fundamental question arises. What about the government needs redesign? Does its platform, or its execution need revamping?
Fournier speaks of radical connectivity first in a broad sense, in terms of how it is changing society. But the scope of his article is government, and especially as he begins to elaborate eagerly on Mele's arguments, it becomes clear that he means specifically the federal government, as opposed to its state and local counterparts.
When those ordinary but notable citizens of the American colonies met for the Constitutional Conventions, they had a specific agenda. They convened to develop a means of governing, not a set of laws, for they were not writing the U.S. Code. They wanted the basis on which the laws would sit, not the laws themselves. What resulted was the U.S. Constitution: the rightful, final arbiter of all legislation in the United States of America. This is why we find very few specific descriptions there of criminal acts, save treason and a few others. We don't find statutes against murder in the Constitution, or against usury, or theft, and we don't find their penalties. It leaves those to Congress and the legislative process, as in the case of the Enumeration Clause (Article I, Section 2), which authorizes the decennial Census "in such Manner as they shall by Law direct"; as well as the rules of naturalization and the Bankruptcy Clause in Article I, Section 8.
Further, the premise of most of Mele's argument (and by extension Fournier's), is that this radical connectivity is something entirely new, with unprecedented implications for society. But the concept of worldwide communication is far less recent than most contemporary Americans believe. Before the European colonization of America, men and women were moving continuously from Japan to India to Africa to England -- that is, all over the known world -- on ships and roads, and the goods, news, diseases, and cultural memes they carried had the same effect as those more rapidly distributed today. After Columbus's first visit to America, ships ran all the time among the Americas, Europe, and Africa (from the latter, nefariously, on slave trading routes). Mail was carried and word of mouth spread just as it does today. Messages may have taken three weeks or more to travel one way, but because of them, the people of that day also had a sense of belonging to the world, not just to their own nations.
So, how must our United States government adapt?
Fournier states, "Mele would convene a constitutional convention (Thomas Jefferson imagined one every generation) to struggle with the questions of radical connectivity," thereby subtly pushing the idea that our Constitution needs revision based on a supposedly new social phenomenon. But if you revisited the Declaration of Independence this past Fourth of July, you read "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes." The question is whether radical connectivity is a light and transient cause; and it arguably is. The effects of worldwide instantaneous communication on societies are identical to those of the same messages transmitted less rapidly. The messages that foment the radical upheaval of which Mele speaks in such apocalyptic tones were no different from those distributed today; and even the most rapid social change doesn't happen in the space of a tweet.
So the answer is that our system of government need not adapt, at least not radically. Our present government, however, does.
Fournier and Mele rightly lament our present "vending-machine government": "Politicians make promises, we pay taxes, and our participation is limited to 'shaking the vending machine.'" This pattern is easily observable and certainly real. But is this a fault of the system, or of those running it? Fournier, and others who would change the Constitution, mistake the currently corrupted execution of the system for the system itself. Humans cannot perfectly execute even a perfect system, but if the tenets of the system are followed well, then their merits will transfer into practical living. Constitutional scholar, attorney, and talk radio host Mark Levin often speaks of the present-day U.S. as a "post-Constitutional republic," by that he means we have strayed far from our original limited-government philosophy. Now, the government incarcerates a citizen for putting a sign on his own lawn. It subsidizes companies directly, as well as indirectly through mandates on consumer products like light bulbs and automobiles. Congress has unconstitutionally transferred its lawmaking powers to executive-branch agencies such as the FDA, EPA, and FCC, which write regulations that carry criminal penalties. Seventy percent of our tax revenue is devoted to welfare programs. The system as designed would work fine, were it not for the massive, unwarranted modifications. It's like a car adapter with a washing machine plugged in.
Did the Founders know about Twitter? Of course not. But they did have a concept of radical connectivity: It was called local government. The technology is new, but per human nature, the effect is quite old. The grassroots movements Fournier praises can now reach quickly across the world, but their manifestation must naturally be the same as before: local. Social movements always manifest locally first. That commonly-seen bumper sticker, THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY, is yet another acknowledgement of this pattern.
In a way, Fournier acknowledges the problem when he says big government must break up into small units. If we recognize that this was the exact intent of the first Federalists -- to distribute governmental power geographically and logistically across the States and their localities -- we move a step toward understanding how radical their concept of government was. Not only did they seek to decouple themselves from England, but the Federalists also sought, wisely, to decouple their new central government from those of the cities across the land, whose cultures varied widely and whose leaders knew much better how to serve their constituents than did a centralized, far-off government.
All this only serves to prove the Framers' prescience: local government is exactly the kind of "bottom-up ethos" Fournier describes as new. Alexis de Tocqueville chronicled this extensively in his visits to America in the early 1800s, specifically with regard to New England:
The township is, on the contrary, composed of coarser materials, which are less easily fashioned by the legislator. The difficulties which attend the consolidation of its independence rather augment than diminish with the increasing enlightenment of the people. A highly civilized community spurns the attempts of a local independence, is disgusted at its numerous blunders, and is apt to despair of success before the experiment is completed. Again, no immunities are so ill protected from the encroachments of the supreme power as those of municipal bodies in general: they are unable to struggle, single-handed, against a strong or an enterprising government, and they cannot defend their cause with success unless it be identified with the customs of the nation and supported by public opinion. Thus until the independence of townships is amalgamated with the manners of a people it is easily destroyed, and it is only after a long existence in the laws that it can be thus amalgamated.
-- Democracy in America,
Chapter V, Part I
In other words, towns and cities -- the grassroots incubators -- were always under the thumb of "the supreme power" of the central government, and it remained so until the culture was convinced that individuals and their local communities should have the highest sovereignty. This is one of the most crucial differences the Constitution made in the world.
Insofar as conservatism ever calls for "going back" to a time before, this is exactly the kind of call it makes. Modern American government has gone terribly wrong. The federal government, and many states, are outdated and anachronistic because they are indeed too big, and are ignoring the bottom-up, adaptable nature of the Constitution. The Founders knew the same thing Tim Berners-Lee and the other pioneers of the Internet knew: small, distributed nodes are a failsafe against all sorts of corruption.
What must we do? In our own circles, we must begin emphasizing local rather than federal government. When your friends start talking about Obama, talk about what your state senator is doing. Become just as educated about the federal and state courts in your own district as you are about the Supreme Court decisions. Use radical connectivity -- Twitter, and your local influence -- to create a more attentive culture. For most of us, our sphere of influence is still local. But that's enough.
Thomas Burke has worked for 10 years in the IT industry and is a regular contributor to The Brenner Brief, where he writes on politics, technology, and pop culture.