Washington Fails at Everything
Donald Trump gave a silly and meandering answer when asked about the role of the federal government, and he has drawn a lot of justifiable scorn from conservative pundits about his remarks. But in a broader sense, no one running for the White House in either major party seems able (or, more likely, willing) to say what the role of the federal government should be in America.
The Constitution is pretty plain: all the powers the federal government has are articulated as legislative power in Article I, Section 8, and the role defined in Article I is very small. Basically, this is what the federal government is supposed to do: conduct diplomacy, trade, and national defense; create systems for naturalization; insure that money is sound and sovereign debt is honored; protecting intellectual property; and regulate the postal service, with such infrastructure as that may require.
Nothing in the Constitution grants the federal government power to manage health care or fund education or regulate private land use or bail out banks and other businesses or do almost anything that almost every candidate today is insisting he will do if elected president. This does not mean that "government" has no right to enter into these areas, but it means that state governments, which have all residual powers not granted directly to the federal government, have that power – to act or not to act.
The remedy in our system if the federal government lacks sufficient authority in the Constitution is to amend the Constitution, but only in three instances – the 14th Amendment requiring equal protection, the 16th Amendment allowing Congress to tax income, and the 18th Amendment mandating Prohibition – have federal powers been expanded. (The 18th Amendment was repealed.)
What ought to trouble us and the candidates seeking our votes for president is that in those limited areas in which the federal government is supposed to act, it fails wretchedly. Section 8, Clauses 5 and 6 are intended to end the problem of state currency and private banknotes, which made money unsound. State governments also played fast and loose with bonds and debt.
Can anyone seriously say that the Monopoly money that passes as federal currency is not shamelessly manipulated in ways that no state government or private entity could have done? Federal currency was once redeemable in gold, then in silver, then in nothing more than the whims of the Federal Reserve system.
One hundred years ago, before the devolution of currency value by federal manipulation, much of the currency in circulation was made up of private banknotes, which were always redeemable in gold – a "dollar" is simply a measurement of precious metal – and because banks lived or died based upon their fidelity, this money was very sound. One happy consequence was that between the ratification of the Constitution and World War I, our nation had, essentially, no inflation at all.
The sovereign debt problem of state governments, which was a real problem in 1789, is as bad today as when the Constitution was adopted, but much worse, the sovereign debt of the federal government is so huge that it will never be paid off, and the simple service of that debt will soon become unmanageable.
The system of orderly and lawful naturalization in Clause 4 of Section 8 has disintegrated, and worse, when states like Arizona have attempted to at least have state officers enforce federal law, Washington has rejected that help. The borders, of course, are utterly insecure. States like Texas could close the border – and would, but for Washington.
Intellectual property is systematically pirated by other nations (so much for federal control of that function), and, of course, the trade practices of nations have effectively crippled much commerce and industry in America.
Does the federal government protect us from threats? Political correctness has gutted much sensible security action. The military is used not so much to win wars or defeat enemies as to placate domestic opinion and serve the political interests of cynical American leaders.
Ironically, that part of the original federal role that is probably done better than any others is the one most often mocked, the postal services, but even that function, with many private competitors and with cyber-mail alternatives, is increasingly irrelevant.
Washington fails at almost everything it does, and the vast majority of the things it does are not legitimate activities for the federal government under our constitutional system. It would be reassuring if someone – anyone – running for president saw the shrinking of federal power back to its original purpose to be a winning campaign issue. Sadly no one does.