Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The more perfect union we love to hate

Just read two 4th of July essays that I can't help juxtaposing, because each has a valid point to make, and yet they're all but contradictory.

First, E. J. Dionne, arguing that the Tea Party fundamentally misunderstands the American experiment:

Whether they intend it or not, their name suggests they believe that the current elected government in Washington is as illegitimate as was a distant, unelected monarchy. It implies something fundamentally wrong with taxes themselves or, at the least, that current levels of taxation (the lowest in decades) are dangerously oppressive. And it hints that methods outside the normal political channels are justified in confronting such oppression.

We need to recognize the deep flaws in this vision of our present and our past. A reading of the Declaration of Independence makes clear that our forebears were not revolting against taxes as such -- and most certainly not against government as such.

In the long list of "abuses and usurpations" the Declaration documents, taxes don't come up until the 17th item, and that item is neither a complaint about tax rates nor an objection to the idea of taxation. Our Founders remonstrated against the British crown "for imposing taxes on us without our consent." They were concerned about "consent," i.e. popular rule, not taxes.

The very first item on their list condemned the king because he "refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good." Note that the signers wanted to pass laws, not repeal them, and they began by speaking of "the public good," not about individuals or "the private sector." They knew that it takes public action -- including effective and responsive government -- to secure "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Next, Jonathan Bernstein, on the grand old American tradition of holding elected officials in contempt:
From the beginning, Americans have had a mixed relationship with their politicians. At the same time that the Framers of the Constitution were basing their system on political self-interest, others were already strongly opposed to what they saw as a new aristocracy, a separate class of politicians. After all, part of the promise of the Revolution was the idea that every citizen could meaningfully participate in politics, and the scheme of representation embodied in the Constitution appeared, to some, to betray it. In other words, the fear and suspicion of aristocracy that informed opposition to the King and the British was transferred rather easily into opposition to legislatures and politicians in general. The Federalists won the battle over adoption of the Constitution, but their opponents, in large part, won the battle over political culture. So the United States became a land of thousands upon thousands of politicians, part-time and full-time, but with a culture that regards them with anything from contempt to hatred.
Of course, these observations do not really contradict each other. It was the political class that put their signatures to the Declaration and later wrote the Constitution. Suspicion of overweening government authority has always accompanied American attempts to constitute and exercise that authority.  We're generally "more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right [our]selves by abolishing the forms to which [we] are accustomed." But the "paranoid style" of our politics predisposes many of us to suspect that a government antipathetic to our own ideology or preferred course "evinces a design to reduce [us] under absolute despotism."

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