American Citizens and the Drift from First Principles

Earlier this month I was present at a public appearance by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who had just finished touring a thriving and growing business on the North Shore.  Following his tour, the governor delivered a gracious presentation to an assembly of employees.  He invited questions following his remarks.  What followed was an explicit demonstration of the corrosion of our political discourse.

It's not what you might think: stark-raving morons did not accuse the governor of hiding Barack Obama's original birth certificate underneath a tree in Boston Common.  There were no demands that Patrick quarter state troopers in homes flying the Gadsden flag.  All of the questions were politely proffered and, most likely in the minds of those asking, innocently benign.

One questioner mentioned how fortunate she was to enjoy employment inasmuch as she graduated with a degree in English.  However, she wondered, what could the governor or the legislature do to encourage companies to actively hire other graduates of the liberal arts who are having difficulty finding jobs?

Another person cited a story on the Huffington Post(!) regarding a situation in which some employers in some industries are requiring that applicants for some positions be currently employed to be considered.  What could the government do about this?

To his credit, Patrick deftly and diplomatically answered these inane questions about what the government could do about such nonsense with a gentle version of the correct answer: nothing.  He let them down easy.  But the unstated premise of the questions was frightening: any problem, no matter how anecdotal, no matter how easily solved privately or personally, no matter how irrelevant, demands a response from government.  Looking to the government immediately rather than as the absolute last resort has become the default position of too many Americans.

We have a president who is currently doing everything he can to turn us in to Europe, which has been lounging on this very principle since the end of World War II.  Every unoriginal solution Obama offers involves government.  The government will give you health care.  The government will determine what you may and may not eat.  The government will determine what you may and may not drive.  The government will determine how much debt your unborn children will be required to pay.  In short, our president's promise to "fundamentally change" the United States is about the only promise he has kept.  Too many in our midst see nothing wrong with this.

This conditioned begging for the attention of Washington or Boston -- with no thought of the consequences it entails -- is symptomatic of a citizenry that has lost its moorings.  It is a misapplication of the basic reasons for and functions of government.  It is a perversion of the phrase self-government.  The more we expect our problems to be solved by distant central planners, the farther we drift from that which made our nation unique and the reason for its existence.

As Ronald Reagan said in 1964, there comes a time when a man who recognizes what has been sacrificed before and what is being irresponsibly risked for the future must say about those who seek to destroy from within that "there is a point beyond which they will not advance."

That is precisely why citizens who are variously known as Tea Partiers or constitutional conservatives, or who were perhaps previously politically ambivalent, are protesting and remaining silent no longer.  It explains the enthusiasm for and curiosity about a politician like Texas governor Rick Perry, whose stated presidential campaign principle is to "make the federal government as inconsequential in your life as possible," or a private citizen like Herman Cain representing the non-political class.

That rhetoric resonates because it is a first principle -- perhaps the first principle -- of this republic.  Citizens who defer to the government are either ignorant of or willfully blind to the first principles of our government.  They have forgotten -- or were never taught -- that the brilliance of our democratic republic lies in self-reliance and charity.  It lies -- or once lay -- in a reliance on local institutions, private organizations, our schools, and our churches.  It lies -- or once lay -- in self-control and dignity.

Governance in America too was once primarily a local matter.  As the late political philosopher Russell Kirk wrote of the way government once functioned in New England, "[g]overnment, in its simplicity, was of direct and immediate concern to most elements in the commonwealth; and since social conscience operates most rigorously when social proximity is the rule, this was, buy and large, a just society: corruption and negligence would have been too conspicuous to pervade for any length of time[.] ... Man had to look man in the eye, conscience spoke to conscience."

Or as the great observer of American life Alexis de Tocqueville put it, "[i]t is in the township that the strength of free peoples resides. Municipal institutions are for liberty what primary schools are for science; they place it within reach of the people[.] ... Without municipal institutions, a nation is able to give itself a free government, but it lacks the spirit of liberty."

It is in the spirit of liberty that there is indeed a cry for fundamental change all over the country.  But that sort of fundamental change is alien to President Obama and his enablers because it is a change back to fundamentals that they flatly reject by word and deed every day.  They will soon find themselves rejected.

Matthew May welcomes comments at

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