A Plan to Renew the Promise of American Life
This is not your father’s plan to save America, though it might be your grandfather’s.
It’s a bundle of reforms that together, in my opinion, light a path to national happiness. The plan is ambitious, some will say too ambitious. But that’s because it doesn’t begin with the question, ‘What’s feasible today?’ but rather tries to ask, ‘What would it really take to meet the present crisis, consistent with our principles and traditions, and with the laws of human nature?’ It’s not trying to win the next election or tweak the status quo. It’s looking for a way to renew the promise of American life.
And what is that promise? It’s the promise of enjoying freedom and happiness, by way of virtue and self-government. It’s the promise of living in a land of strong families and healthy communities, a land where children are safe and happy and the future offers hope, a land where people are truly free, where we, the people, rule our rulers, not the other way round, where no one rules anyone else without their consent, where families take care of themselves and local communities govern themselves, and where people respect the life, liberty, and property of their neighbors because, well, that’s what decent folk do. In short, it’s the promise of living in a land marked by brotherly concord and goodwill, where every citizen enjoys freedom, justice, and personal safety, where every individual, family, and community can pursue happiness in their own way, under God, so long as they respect the rights of others. The sort of land that men willingly fight and die for, not just because it’s theirs, but because, on the deepest level, it’s beautiful.
Nowadays, let’s face it, that promise is lost. The American idea is in retreat on countless fronts. Look around. We suffer from cultural rot, chronic inflation, political corruption. We groan under the weight of out-of-control debt, bloated government, rampant cronyism. We tolerate executive lawlessness, judicial usurpation, massive privacy violations. Communities are frayed, social relations are weak, culture wars divide us, and moral relativism, like acid, spreads and destroys the bonds of friendship wherever it proceeds unchecked. We live in our own bubbles, and disagree on even the most basic questions. We are continuously outraged and suspicious. And we show only the most limited ability to find common ground. Some days, it feels like we are in the early stages of a civil war. Without a doubt, we are losing our freedoms and our ability to govern ourselves. I do not think it is altogether an exaggeration to say that we are witnessing the end of democracy in America.
America has been called ‘exceptional.’ In what way? Only in this. We are the first nation in history to commit itself to the idea of popular sovereignty, to the idea that in the order of nature the only just form of government is rule by the people. The people must rule the rulers and not the other way round. And thus individuals must govern themselves, must acquire virtue, and must have the freedom to do so. In other words, virtue, freedom, and limited government all rise and fall together.
To be just, government must be limited. That’s the American idea. And the fact that our ancestors’ attempted to live by that historically unheard-of idea is what made them exceptional.
Today we’re no longer exceptional in that sense. But I’d say it’s not because other nations have emulated us, not because every nation now claims to live by popular rule. Rather, it’s because we have forgotten what it means to be us. America doesn’t feel like America any more. It doesn’t feel like the land of the free any more. Something’s wrong.
And the sure sign that something’s wrong is this: every peaceful remedy appears impossible. Popular movements come and go, but nothing changes. The political class, even when it seems responsive, reverts to form. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Our leaders don’t just ignore our problems, to a great extent they are the problem. Or rather, they too are victims of some deeper, underlying problem.
As a friend of mine once joked, ‘Our forefathers would have been shooting by now.’ He’s not wrong! But surely we can avoid bullets while we still have ballots. There’s always hope.
My view is that all of our current problems can be traced, in one way or another, to one problem: centralization — and specifically, to an excessive centralization of power in government, and to private monopolies created and sustained by government. And primarily, of course, I mean our central government in Washington. A fish rots from the head down.
Centralization is the problem. The solution, therefore, is decentralization.
Decentralization doesn’t mean anarchy. It means local freedom and self-government, communities making their own policy choices based on their own needs and their own understanding of right and wrong, within reasonable limits. When power is decentralized — when individuals and communities govern themselves — wonderful things happen. We know this from our own historical experience. No one can tell me it’s not possible or desirable for local communities to be free and self-governing. That used to be the American way of life. And yes, local communities can sometimes be despotic and unjust. They can suffer from what Madison called ‘majority faction.’ But that’s why we need civil rights laws with effective enforcement. We do need a strong central government. But its powers must be ‘few and defined.’
I’m hopeful and confident that we can save our country because of the simple, undeniable fact that human nature hasn’t changed. The laws of economics and politics haven’t changed. Our inborn desire for freedom and happiness hasn’t changed. The principles of the Declaration of Independence are just as true today as they were on the morning of July 4th, 1776. So why not give them another try?
How? Well, I think the first step is to define the problem: we’ve lost our right to govern ourselves. And the solution is to restore that right. The next step is to realize that it will take nothing short of a popular revolution to restore it. And the next is to realize that this revolution can succeed. After all, we’ve done it before! To be clear, I mean a peaceful revolution. We still have the tools for peaceful change, thank God.
The only way we can renew the promise of American life is to put our founding principles back at the center of our national life.
But I don’t pretend it will be easy. It will be hard — in some ways very hard. But if we go all in, it will be worth it.
Going all in means being serious about the goal. To achieve the goal, we really have to renew our devotion to the principle that ‘All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ We really have to stand for individual liberty, civil rights, and local self-government. We really have to ensure equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none. We really have to demand fiscal common sense, and honest, constitutional money. We really have to say no to bailouts and yes to free enterprise. Above all, we really have to follow the Constitution — the solemn act of the people — as written, even when doing so seems hard.
It won’t be easy. But imagine what would happen if we did go all in? The blessings would be awesome!
Jefferson was right: That government is best which governs least. But Adams was also right: Freedom means the freedom to do what we should, not the freedom to do anything we please.
What is the purpose of government? To protect our rights to life, liberty, and property, and to punish those who violate them. That’s it. Everything else is up to us. Government doesn’t exist to take care of our needs. It exists to protect our right to take care of our own needs.
What’s the secret of our Constitution’s great success? Its insistence on keeping power decentralized. The so-called ‘Living Constitution,’ the hijacked, centralized version of our Constitution, must necessarily make us miserable. Only the real Constitution can make us happy. Real patriots look for ways to overthrow the Living Constitution and bring the real Constitution back from exile.
And what is this ‘real Constitution’ I speak of? Well, for starters, it’s the actual text of the document. The words of the text. They actually mean something. We have to read them, and do what they say.
And for another, it’s the four pillars or principles on which that document is built, namely: republicanism, federalism, separation of powers, and enumeration of powers. (I tend to view separation of church and state as a fifth pillar, and in a certain respect the central one. But these four are my focus.) All four must be in place for the system to work. All four must be kept strong.
Each plank of this plan tries to shore up at least one of the Constitution’s four pillars.
To be sure, none of the plan’s fourteen planks, by itself, is a silver bullet. The plan is a package. But if I had to pick the three most important reforms to pursue, I’d pick judicial reform, honest money, and the two tax reform planks (abolish income taxation and rely on duties and excises) considered as one. Secure those three, and the rest will likely follow in time.
On fiscal and economic issues, the plan’s motto might be summarized simply as ‘balanced budgets, honest money, and no income tax.’ It calls for a return to the ‘full dinner pail’ policies of William McKinley: honest money, free enterprise, balanced budgets, moderate tariffs, and an exclusive reliance on consumption taxes.
If I were forced to pick just one plank to start with, the answer would be: restore honest money. That one reform makes it much easier to achieve the fiscal reforms. And those in turn make it easier to achieve the rest of the plan. A litany:
- The only way to renew the promise of American life is to limit government power.
- The best way to limit government power is to limit government spending.
- The best way to limit government spending is to limit government debt.
- The best way to limit government debt is to limit government money-printing.
- The best way to limit government money-printing is to restore honest money by following the Constitution’s monetary rules.
Honest, constitutional money is the straightest path to American renewal. Follow the yellow brick road!
A close second to honest money is ending all forms of income taxation, including the payroll tax. Without income taxation, the redistribution of wealth diminishes, the waterfalls of debt dry up, and the ‘chronic debt coalition,’ whose members want something for nothing, is forced to prioritize. Without ever-bigger government, that coalition must necessarily fall apart. Now an opening appears, like a ray of sunshine through the clouds, for an entirely new governing coalition, a coalition committed to smaller, constitutionally limited government — to freedom, opportunity, and prosperity for all.
When such a coalition appears, it will become possible to freeze peacetime federal spending, allowing routine surpluses to appear, and thus to devolve unconstitutional spending to the states and the private sector.
Obviously, this all entails what policy wonks call ‘entitlement reform.’ My own approach to entitlement reform depends on four basic strategies:
- Devolution. Transfer spending programs out of the federal portfolio to the states (and where appropriate, the private sector), by eliminating the programs at the federal level while simultaneously cutting tax receipts by a similar amount, so states can keep them going if they wish. (This strategy, note, requires surpluses.)
- Transitional block grants. Convert existing programs into simple, large payments to states, and thus cap federal fiscal exposure and facilitate the eventual transfer of federal programs to the states. (This strategy is doable with or without surpluses.)
- Payroll-tax abolition. Eliminating payroll taxes is necessary not only to eliminate income taxes but also to facilitate the means-testing of Social Security and Medicare, a reform that, it seems to me, is mathematically unavoidable if we want to get federal spending and debt under control.
- Voluntariness in all federal programs. Make the receipt of all federal welfare and income-support benefits 100 percent voluntary for individuals. For example, repeal the individual mandates in Obamacare and Medicare. [See footnotes 1 and 2.]
But wait, readers must be asking themselves: Isn’t all this tantamount to repealing the New Deal?!
No. While the plan certainly does reject the redistributionist, big-government spirit of the New Deal, it does not repeal the New Deal’s most important achievement, its national safety nets. It reforms them, in keeping with the Constitution and common sense. [See footnote 3.]
As historian Steven Hayward has observed, there was not one New Deal, but several:
At a minimum, the New Deal can be said to comprise four essential attributes: 1) Keynesian counter-cyclical spending (partly in the form of public works); 2) immediate relief from destitution [i.e., welfare] and new long-term social insurance (especially Social Security); 3) more aggressive and centralized regulation of industries in ways that at times verged on direct economic planning (this was the fascistic part — think of the National Industrial Recovery Act); and 4) putting the New Deal’s programmatic machinery to partisan uses, culminating in the perpetual motion machine captured by Harry Hopkins’s famous slogan, “Tax, tax, spend, spend, elect, elect.”
Whatever benefits those four, distinct New Deals may have offered in the 1930s, three of them are now clearly outdated: New Deal 4 condemns itself and New Deals 1 and 3 have proved in practice harmful and counterproductive. That leaves just New Deal 2, the federal safety net. It’s the one ‘New Deal’ that still commands widespread popular support. This plan reforms rather than eliminates it.
Does means-testing Social Security and Medicare ‘repeal the New Deal’? No. Means-testing is common sense, and fiscally unavoidable.
Does devolution — transferring welfare and ‘social’ insurance programs back to the states — ‘repeal the New Deal’? No. Welfare is inherently local by nature, and state politicians are just as sensitive to voters’ concerns as federal politicians are. Devolution decentralizes the New Deal, it does not end it. To be sure, we do have to be prudent. We should err on the side of caution, because safety nets are important. And we should implement the reforms in a way that’s gradual, moderate, and compassionate.
Now we come to a deeper issue. Does the plan propose any constitutional amendments? Unfortunately, it does. When I started to mull this whole question over, I was eager to avoid amendments. I wanted to see if we can save America without having to jump such a high hurdle. Constitutional amendments are very hard to accomplish. But I quickly realized we have no choice. The problems are too deep. To resist the formal repair of our Constitution at this point is, I think, in a paradoxical way, to abet its ruin.
There are many possible amendments of course. But I believe two very simple ones would accomplish almost everything we really need to accomplish:
- A majority of the states may repeal any federal law or regulation.
- A majority of the states, representing a majority of the U.S. population, is needed to approve an increase in the national debt.
Now, additionally, and only as a last resort, we might need a third amendment, relating to the judiciary. This one would only be needed in the event that we could not achieve judicial reforms through more traditional means:
- Each state fills one seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, with each justice serving no more than, say, twelve years.
That’s it. Together, these two (or possibly three) amendments would restore the states to their proper role in our system, which would in turn lead to the re-limiting of federal power and the revival of local self-government. (I discusses these in more detail in the regulation, debt, and judiciary planks.)
To sum up: I am proposing a comprehensive plan to renew the promise of American life by enabling the people to govern themselves, and more specifically by permanently restoring the proper constitutional powers of Congress and the states.
Do I sound crazy? I must!
But then, we live in a crazy age! In the context of American history and the present crisis, I think the plan is eminently sensible, and frankly pretty modest.
Is it radical? Well, in a good way, sure. Our system is designed for incremental rather than radical change. And most of the time that’s a blessing. But in our current plight, reforms that are not grounded in first principles — that are not radical, in the sense of going to the root — are a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Sometimes we need to be conservative, sometimes we need to be liberal, and sometimes we need to be, well, radical. To every thing there is a season.
Renewing the promise of American life won’t be easy. It will be hard — in some ways very hard. It will require sacrifice. But if we go all in, it will be worth it. The blessings will be awesome!
1/ Update: Obamacare’s individual mandate is gone, hallelujah! In June of 2012, the Supreme Court found Obamacare’s individual mandate to be unconstitutional, yet upheld the penalty employed to enforce the mandate, declaring the latter to be merely a (constitutionally acceptable) tax. But then, in 2017, as part of a big tax-cut package, Congress zeroed out that tax, effective January 1, 2019. And thus Obamacare’s most controversial mandate came to a well-deserved end.
2/ Update: President Trump ended Medicare’s individual mandate on October 3, 2019, by executive order. He directed the relevant federal agencies to effect this welcome policy change by no later than April 1, 2020.
3/ Despite what the Supreme Court has said, Congress lacks the power to operate federal welfare and income-security programs, including Social Security. This is a legal fact. If the American people want Social Security to be a federal responsibility, they need only provide Congress with the relevant power, via constitutional amendment. If I were the Supreme Court, I would honestly declare the program to be unconstitutional, but, as an equitable remedy, I’d allow it to continue temporarily because tens of millions of Americans rely upon it financially. I would set a reasonable deadline for the program to end, providing sufficient time for the necessary constitutional amendment to be proposed and ratified. In short, I’d put the problem back where it properly belongs, with the people’s elected representatives. And yes, I realize that our real Supreme Court would almost certainly never do such a thing, and that if by some miracle it did, the legislatures might fail to act before the deadline. But what else can we do? When it comes to constitutional fidelity, we have to go all in. We have to be honest and faithful to our own first principles, no matter how inconvenient.
Revised: November 19, 2019.
Published: June 21, 2013.
Author: Dean Clancy.