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 living in a land of strong families and healthy communities, 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, where no one rules anybody without their consent, where families take care of themselves and local communities govern themselves, and where folks respect the life, liberty, and property of their neighbors because, well, that’s what decent people do. In short, it’s the promise of living in a land marked by fraternal 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, or at least seems to be. The American idea is clearly in retreat on many fronts. Look around. We suffer from cultural rot, economic depression, political corruption. We groan under the weight of out-of-control debt, bloated government, and rampant cronyism. We tolerate executive lawlessness, judicial usurpation, and massive privacy violations. Communities are frayed, social relations are weak. We all seem to live in our own bubbles, and disagree on more and more things. And we show only the most limited ability to reconcile our differences amicably. We are slowly but surely losing our freedoms and our ability to govern ourselves. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say we’re witnessing the end of democracy in America.
America has been called ‘exceptional.’ In what way? Only in this: for the first time in human history a nation committed itself to the idea that, as a matter of fundamental justice, the people must rule the rulers and not the other way around, and we attempted to live by that historically un-heard-of commitment. But today America no longer seems exceptional in that sense, does it? Remedies seem impossible. Our rulers in Washington are unresponsive. Our rulers, so called, are not just ignoring our problems, they are the problem.
As a friend of mine once joked, ‘Our forefathers would have been shooting by now.’
True but—whoa, let’s no go there!
There’s always hope. Surely we can always avoid bullets while we have ballots.
My view is that all of our current problems can be traced, in one way or another, to an excessive centralization of power. Centralization is the problem. Thus the solution is decentralization.
The answer to despair is not violence but hope—hope and hard work. There are simple solutions, just no easy ones.
When individuals and communities govern themselves, wonderful things happen. We know this from our own history. 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 still just as true as they were on the morning of July 4th, 1776. So why not give ’em another try?
The first step to national happiness is to realize that we have lost our right to govern ourselves, and that it will take nothing short of a popular revolution to restore that right. The second step is to realize that this revolution can succeed, if we want it to. We’ve done it before.
The way to renew the promise of American life is to put our founding principles back at the center of our national life. But it will only work if we go all in. 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 insist on replacing chronic deficits with balanced budgets. We really have to demand that inflation give way to honest, constitutional money. We really have to replace bailouts with free enterprise. We really have to really 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.’
Yeah, it won’t be easy. I get it. But if we do go all in? The blessings will be awesome.
Our ultimate hope lies in our Constitution and its limits on government power. Unlimited power is a curse, limited power a blessing. 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. And that’s it. Everything else is up to us.
Government does not exist to take care of our needs. It exists to protect our right to take care of our own needs.
The secret of our Constitution’s great success is its insistence on decentralizing power. The so-called ‘Living Constitution,’ the hijacked version of the Constitution that centralizes power, must necessarily make us miserable. Only the real Constitution can make us happy.
Patriots look for ways to overthrow the Living Constitution and bring the real Constitution back from exile.
The real Constitution rests on four pillars: republicanism, federalism, separation of powers, and enumeration of powers. (Separation of church and state could be viewed as a fifth pillar, and perhaps even the central one.) All four pillars must be in place for the system to work. All must be strong. Each plank of this plan tries to shore up at least one of them.
If the plan could be reduced to a bumper sticker, it would be: civil rights, individual liberty, and local self-government.
Or to put it in a more detailed way, the plan 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.
None of the plan’s fourteen planks is a silver bullet. The whole thing is best viewed as a package. But if I had to pick the four 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). Secure those, and the rest will very likely follow.
If I had to pick just one plank to start with, it would be restoring honest money, because it creates the necessary conditions for most of the other reforms.
The best way to promote freedom and prosperity 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 the money supply. And the best way to limit the money supply is to return to the honest-money system prescribed by the Constitution. In short, restoring honest money paves 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. That coalition, which cannot survive without ever-bigger government, falls apart. Now an opening appears, like a ray of hope through the clouds, for an entirely new governing coalition, a coalition committed to smaller, constitutionally limited government—and thus to freedom, opportunity, and prosperity for all.
American renewal unavoidably requires that we reduce the overall size, scope, and reach of the federal establishment, by limiting its power to accumulate debt. Fiscal common sense is essential. Restoring it will not be easy, but I believe the simplest path to doing so is to freeze peacetime federal spending and to devolve unconstitutional spending to the states and the private sector. These structural reforms are necessary to produce routine surpluses, which are in turn necessary to make the government permanently smaller and fiscally sound. In particular, I see four tools as essential:
- Devolution. Transfer spending programs out of the federal portfolio to the states and 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, thus capping federal fiscal exposure and facilitating the eventual transfer of federal programs to the states. This strategy is doable with or without surpluses.
- Payroll-tax abolition, which is necessary, not only to eliminate income taxes, but also to facilitate the means-testing of Social Security and Medicare, which is indispensable to the control of federal spending and debt.
- Voluntariness in all federal programs. Limit the power and scope of monopolistic government entitlements, and reaffirm America’s commitment to liberty, by making receipt of all federal welfare and income-support benefits 100 percent voluntary for individuals. For starters, repeal the individual mandates in Obamacare and Medicare. /1
But wait, the reader may ask. Isn’t all this tantamount to repealing the New Deal?!
No. While the plan certainly does reject the redistributionist, big-government elements of the New Deal, it reforms rather than eliminates the New Deal’s most important and enduringly popular achievement: its social safety net.
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. New Deals 1 and 3 have proved in practice harmful and counterproductive. That leaves New Deal 2, the federal safety net. It is the one ‘New Deal’ that still commands widespread popular support. Would means-testing safety-net programs repeal it? No! Means-testing is mere common sense, and fiscally unavoidable. Would transferring all welfare and ‘social’ insurance programs back to the states repeal it? No. Welfare is inherently local by nature, and state politicians are just as sensitive to voters’ concerns as federal politicians are. The important thing is to implement the reforms in a way that’s gradual, moderate, and compassionate. /2
Unfortunately, the plan includes several constitutional amendments. When I started to think about these questions, I wanted to avoid them. But I quickly discovered we have no choice. The problems are too deep. To resist the formal repair of our Constitution at this point is, paradoxically, to abet its ongoing decay.
There are many possible amendments of course, but I believe two very simple ones would accomplish 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.
Additionally, as a last resort, we may need a third amendment, which I propose only as a last resort, if we cannot achieve judicial reforms through more limited means:
- Each state fills one seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, with each justice serving no more than twelve years.
That’s it. Together, these two (or, as a last resort, 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—the only sure paths to the restoration of national happiness. These amendments, by the way, are discussed 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, 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. I realize our system is designed for incremental rather than radical change, and most of the time that’s a blessing (even if impatient souls don’t see it that way). 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, well, we need to be—yes—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. But it will be worth it. It will require sacrifices. But if we go all in, the blessings will be truly awesome.
1/ In 2012 the Supreme Court found Obamacare’s individual mandate to be unconstitutional. In 2017 Congress zeroed out the mandate’s associated penalty tax, which the Court had upheld separately as a tax (pretending it had nothing to do with the mandate). Although unenforced, the mandate itself is still on the books and in prudence should be repealed.
2/ Despite what the Supreme Court has said, Congress lacks the power to operate federal welfare and income-security programs, including Social Security. If the American people want Social Security to be a federal responsibility, they need only provide Congress with the relevant power, via constitutional amendment.
Revised: April 27, 2016.
Published: June 21, 2013.
Author: Dean Clancy.