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. More specifically, it’s a comprehensive plan to renew the promise of American life by decentralizing power so the American people can once again enjoy the blessings of liberty and self-government.
The plan is ambitious, some will say too ambitious. But that’s because it doesn’t begin with the question, ‘What is 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 is not trying to win the next election or tweak the status quo. It is trying to renew the promise of American life.
And what is that promise? This will sound corny, but it is the promise of freedom and happiness in a land of opportunity. A land of happy individuals in strong and healthy communities. A land where citizens are also, in a real sense, friends. The sort of land that men willingly fight and die for, not just because it is theirs, but because, on the deepest level, it is beautiful.
That promise is lost. The idea of America is discredited in many minds. The reality of America is sad, verging on tragic. America’s strength and moral example are in retreat on countless fronts. I could list the myriad woes of American life today, our numberless failures, but the list would be too long and depressing. Suffice it to say something is rotten in this broad and verdant land. Something is not right.
It is not an exaggeration to say we are witnessing the end of democracy in America. American democracy and self-government are slowly being replaced by something different — something alien.
A friend of mine recently joked, ‘Our ancestors would be shooting by now.’ That is undoubtedly true. But the hope of this plan is that we can avoid bullets while we still have ballots.
America has been called ‘exceptional.’ And it is exceptional, in the following sense. It is the first nation in history that committed itself to the idea of popular sovereignty — the idea that rule by the people is the only just form of government, the idea that by right the people must always rule the rulers and not the other way around.
Popular sovereignty flows from individual sovereignty. No person can govern another person without that other person’s consent. I am sovereign, and so are you. No one can justly take that sovereignty away from us.
But we can consent to government for our mutual benefit. Governments that recognize this principle — the principle of consent — are legitimate. Governments based on force and coercion — and that includes most of the governments that have ever existed — are illegitimate. The people may replace that kind of government, by force if necessary. Each of us has an inalienable right of revolution, and we can exercise it when truly oppressed.
The flip side of individual sovereignty is individual responsibility. Each person must participate in self-government. We cannot leave the job of government to strangers, to kings and aristocrats. We have to take part in it ourselves.
And that means, of course, that each person must govern himself. Each citizen, each family, each local community, must be virtuous and self-reliant. And it must have the freedom to be so. And therefore government must be limited.
The blessings of liberty cannot come from the top down. They cannot flow from coercion. They must come from the bottom up, from individuals freely entering into community for mutual benefit.
Liberty and virtue are two sides of a coin. Liberty and limited government rise and fall together.
This is the American idea. This is the idea — the only idea — that makes America exceptional.
In our time, every reform movement appears to have failed. The more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. We have tried to elect the right people to fix the problems, and they have perpetuated and deepened the problems. Our leaders do not just ignore our problems, to a great extent they are the problem. Or rather, they, like we, are the victims of the real problem, the deep problem.
And that problem is centralization — centralization of power, not just in government, but in numerous private monopolies and cartels created and sustained by government. Centralization is why things never change for the better.
If centralization is the problem, the solution is of course decentralization. Now, decentralization does not mean anarchy. It just means things like individual liberty, free enterprise, and constitutionally limited government. It means markets instead of monopolies. It means the separation of powers and federalism. In other words, it means the American idea.
Only a return to the American idea can renew the promise of American life.
We must put our founding principles back at the center of our national life. That is all.
The good news is renewal is possible because human nature does not change. The laws of economics do not change. The laws of politics do not change. Our inborn desire for freedom and happiness does not change. The principles of the Declaration of Independence are just as true today as they were on the morning of July 4th, 1776. Why not give them another try?
What would that mean in practice?
It would mean a whole-hearted re-commitment to the principles of the Declaration and the rules of the Constitution.
It would mean equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none.
It would mean federalism and local self-government, with strong protections for individual liberty and civil rights.
It would mean a return to fiscal common sense and honest money.
It would mean no forcible wealth transfers, no income taxation, no bailouts, no cronyism.
It would mean the security of property and the freedom of contract.
Jefferson said, That government is best which governs least.
Adams said, Freedom means the freedom to do what we should, not the freedom to do anything we please.
They were both right.
What is the purpose of government? To protect our rights to life, liberty, and property, and to punish those who violate those rights. That is it. The rest 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 American Constitution is designed to protect our rights, but in the twentieth century it was replaced by the so-called ‘Living’ Constitution — a constitution that changes according to the whims of those who administer it.
Those who administer it have become a permanent, monolithic extractive elite that keeps itself in perpetual power while retaining the forms of representative democracy.
A living constitution is in principle a despotic constitution. It must ultimately make us miserable, because it rejects the idea of decentralization and the need for fixed barriers to centralization. It removes these safeguards systematically, in the name of ‘getting things done’ for the people. But it does all that at the price of reducing citizens to the status of subjects. Elections become exercises in re-electing entrenched incumbents and the special interests that sponsor them.
So what does this all mean? It means we have to overthrow the Living Constitution and bring back the real Constitution from exile.
And what distinguishes the real Constitution? Four pillars or principles: republicanism, federalism, separation of powers, and enumeration of powers. All four pillars must be in place for the system to work. All four must be kept strong. Therefore, all four must be re-established.
Each plank of this plan tries to shore up at least one pillar. By the way, I tend to view separation of church and state as a fifth constitutional pillar, and in some respects the central one, but this plan does not focus on it because it does not need to.
The plan consists of dozens of policy recommendations arranged into fourteen ‘planks.’ The most important of the planks, in my view, are those concerning judicial reform, tax reform, and honest money.
And the most important of these is honest money, which imposes not just a paper constraint, but a real, physical constraint on the size and scope of government. A return to gold is the straightest path to American renewal.
The plan eliminates the income tax and the payroll tax, and replaces them with consumption taxes. Doing so is essential to restoring the nation’s economic health and, more importantly, to restoring a healthy relationship between government and citizen.
The plan freezes federal spending and caps the national debt and eliminates unconstitutional and unnecessary programs, returning them to the states and the private sector.
The plan does not eliminate popular programs like Medicare and Social Security. It reforms them to make them sustainable. The key reform is means-testing, tying eligibility to financial need. Means-testing is just common sense, really, and it is traditional for good reason. It is also mathematically inevitable. It will happen sooner or later. So let’s embrace it now, and reap the rewards now.
Some will claim means-testing is tantamount to repealing the New Deal. That is silly. This plan accepts the New Deal. In a sense, it enshrines it. But the New Deal that it enshrines is the New Deal that the American people actually support, not an imaginary, utopian New Deal.
As Steven Hayward has observed, there was not one New Deal, but in a sense 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 [that Reagan criticized] — 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 may be the benefits of those four, distinct ‘New Deals,’ three of them are clearly past their prime.
New Deal 1 (Keynesian stimulus spending) has turned out to be ineffectual and counterproductive.
New Deal 3 (economic central planning, the regulatory state) has turned out to be harmful to both liberty and prosperity.
New Deal 4 (ever-bigger government as a partisan election machine) condemns itself.
That leaves just one: New Deal 2 (a national safety net, Social Security). It is the one New Deal the American people still support.
FDR admitted he was experimenting — trying different things to see what worked Some of the ideas he tried did not work.
Now, to be clear, in my view, all four New Deals are unconstitutional. And that includes the still-popular New Deal 2. I don’t care what the Supreme Court said in Helvering v. Davis (1937). The Constitution does not grant Congress a power to enact a welfare program. It leaves that power with the states. Nor it authorize Congress to run a pension program outside the context of federal employment. Citizenship is not federal employment.
Social Security must be brought into alignment with the Constitution by means of a constitutional amendment. And this plan proposes just such an amendment.
Indeed, it includes four amendments, including the one on Social Security.
Amending the Constitution is hard — very hard. I would avoid it if I possibly could. But I have come to the reluctant conclusion that we have no choice. The problems are too deep. To resist the formal amendment of the Constitution at this point is to abet its ruin. At a minimum, the burden of proof should lie with those who say otherwise.
I believe just two amendments could accomplish almost everything that we need to accomplish in terms of restoring the four pillars. They are:
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.
These two amendments would restore federalism and fiscal common sense and make it possible to restore the Constitution’s enumerated limits on federal power.
To be sure, they do not directly address the separation of powers. The judicial and independent agencies planks are intended to restore that pillar. But if they fail to do so, then additionally — and only as a last resort — we may need a third amendment, relating to restructuring the judiciary, along the lines of the following:
Each state fills one seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, with each justice serving no more than, say, twelve years.
To be clear, I am not proposing this third amendment. But I am willing to accept it, if necessary, to save the Constitution.
And as I say, I also endorse some lesser amendments, not just on Social Security, but also on national parks and D.C. statehood. They are intended to help us ‘get right with the Constitution’ — to align our actual practice with our fundamental law.
Does this plan seem crazy? It must. But then, we live in a crazy age.
I do not think the plan is crazy. On the contrary. In the context of American history and the present crisis, I think it is eminently sensible — and frankly rather modest.
Now, I will confess that it is radical, in the sense of going to the root. And that creates a tension because our system is designed for incremental rather than radical change. I have tried to find a balance — the right balance between radical and incremental and practical — a combination of reforms that are both worthwhile and achievable.
I’ll let you decide whether I have succeeded or failed.
But if it turns out I have failed, I am proud to have failed on the side of excessive boldness. To be too radical in this crisis is self-defeating and pointless, I will freely admit. But to be too incremental — too timid — is simply a sin.
Renewing the promise of American life will not be easy. It will be hard. It will require sacrifice. But the blessings will be worth it, for ourselves and our posterity.
Revised: September 17, 2020.
Published: June 21, 2013.
Author: Dean Clancy.