A Plan to Renew the Promise of American Life

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This is not your father’s plan to save America, although it might be your grandfather’s. I call it — immodestly — ‘a plan to renew the promise of American life.’ It’s really just a compilation of the results of a thought experiment and should not be mistaken for a platform in the conventional sense. It gathers in one place my collected thoughts on how I think we could, without violence, make America America again — I mean America in her best and noblest sense.

The challenge I set myself was to figure out how we might reverse America’s obvious and alarming decline. And I quickly concluded that we can only do that, ultimately, by restoring the principles of the American founding to the center of our national life.

Some of my recommendations are sweeping, some are trivial. A few are just practical advice or rules of thumb. To make things more intelligible, I gathered it all into fourteen broad categories, which, for want of a better term, I dubbed ‘planks.’

This thought experiment began around 2010, when I realized that just about every reform movement I had supported had failed and seemed hopeless. And I wondered why. And I decided the answer was that none of them had been serious. None had tried to address the underlying causes of the problems they purported to address. We have been trying to treat the symptoms without stopping to diagnose the disease.

It was not enough to ‘elect the right people,’ I realized — although that, of course, is always necessary. Isn’t it odd, by the way, how ‘our people,’ once in office, always seem to cease being our people? If they’re good, they get blocked at every turn, and if they’re weak, they turn into zombies.

I decided it all comes down to the excessive concentration of power — whether government power, economic power, or institutional power.

By ‘America’s decline,’ I mean the obvious problems that fill the headlines. I mean the undeniable loss of individual liberty and privacy, the slow but steady fading of free enterprise, the endless expansion of government-by-fiat, the failure of our institutions, their corruption, and the maddeningly lousy results of our health care, education, and welfare ‘systems.’ I mean the feeling that our elections aren’t always trustworthy. The alarming degradation of our global power, reputation, and respect. The sense that we don’t live up to our own principles, either at home or abroad. The growing enmity and distrust among ourselves. If we go on like this, I fear, we’ll be at each other’s throats.

A friend of mine once joked, ‘Our ancestors would be shooting by now.’ I can’t argue with that! Is the American spirit dead? No. I wouldn’t go that far. We’re a resilient people. But something is rotten in the land of the free. And things will not change until we try something completely different.

The ‘solution’ I landed on is to restore the ‘American Idea.’ That’s basically a fancy name for popular sovereignty, which is what happens when the people rule the rulers and not the other way around. In its ideal form, popular sovereignty means a government of laws and not of men, with equal justice for all, special privileges for none, and thus ample room for freedom and happiness to flourish.

And that’s more than just rhetoric. We have a right to those things. If all men are created equal, that is final, and there is no going beyond it without going backward. If we have a right to popular sovereignty, that’s final, and we have a right to it and deserve it, and without it we are servants. (I’m echoing a wonderful Calvin Coolidge speech here — a great president, by the way.)

I was born a sovereign, and so were you! And from this, it follows that no one can rightfully infringe my individual natural sovereignty without my consent. And the same goes for you. And that means all legitimate governments, whatever their external form, must rest on consent — the consent of the whole people, as expressed in the will of the majority, consistent, of course, with the rights of all.

Inherent in this logic is the ‘right of revolution.’ As sovereigns by nature, we have a natural right to rebel against those who oppress us. We can lawfully overthrow a despotic government that won’t reform itself. The American revolution was lawful, no matter what King George pretended, because his continued rule over us required our consent, and he had thrown away any right to have it.

The flip side of individual sovereignty is individual responsibility. Each of us has a duty to govern himself. Popular sovereignty entails, not just rights, but duties. Popular sovereignty implies self-government.

And the upshot of these facts — our right of revolution, our duty of self-government — is that the government must be limited. And it is we who must do the limiting.

Our rights do not come from government. They come from nature. Or, if you prefer, they come from God. And ditto, the blessings of liberty. They come, not from government, but from each of us, acting freely for our own individual and mutual benefit, consistent with virtue and justice. In the parlance of our time, we all have a righ to be free and happy, and we can be free and happy — so long we don’t hurt each other and don’t take each other’s stuff.

So, the problem is over-centralization. And the remedy, I believe, is decentralization. Break it all up. Break up the monopolies, public and private. Break up the excessive concentrations of power. End arbitrary rule by omnipotent and ‘enlightened’ bureaucrats. End unhealthy corporate concentrations. Restore the fundamentals: federalism, the separation of powers, the rights of property and contract.

Dispersing power is the way to guarantee to individual liberty. The only way. It’s the only way to preserve free enterprise and economic health. The only way back to flourishing and happy communities. The only way to fight the corruption of our institutions. It’s the only way to reverse American decline.

Only a return to the American Idea can renew the promise of American life.

Along the way, I asked myself, What’s the purpose of government? And again, after thinking about it, I decided it’s simple — laughably so. The purpose of government is to protect our rights to life, liberty, and property, and to punish those who violate those rights, and that’s it. Government does not exist to take care of our needs. It exists to protect our right to take care of our needs.

What’s the purpose of the Constitution? To preserve our Revolution — the revolution from a monarchy to a republic, or what we today call ‘democracy.’ And not only that. Its purpose is to enshrine the universal principles announced by the people who made that revolution, the principles so eloquently stated in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

Along the way, my reading on the Constitution made me aware that the document rests on four pillars and — this was a welcome discovery — only four: republicanism, federalism, separation of powers, and enumeration of powers. Every word in the document is about one of those four things. And, importantly, it takes all four to make it work. Knock one out — any one — and the others can’t stand the strain. They will all eventually fail. And there goes your Revolution!

And I decided we need a popular revolution — non-violent, if at all possible.

Of course, there was nothing new in any of this. Like Chesterton in Orthodoxy, I had rushed out of my study, thrilled to have discovered the great secret, only to find it was not secret. It was written in the sky in giant letters. It had been discovered and published long ago by men of great wisdom — men who not only published it, but acted on it.

If there’s anything original here, it’s simply the attempt to apply these old solid truths to our current predicaments.

So, what does that mean, practically? For me, it means this ‘plan.’

The three most important ‘planks’ are the ones concerning judicial reform, tax reform, and honest money. Implement those, and I think most of the other ‘planks’ fall into place eventually.

But if I had to choose just one, I’d go with honest money. Without that, I’m not sure the others are sustainable. It’s hard to limit a government that retains an unlimited power to spend. So, we have to limit that power. We must limit government’s access to resources. If we limit its money supply, or more precisely, its ability to expand the money supply at will, balanced budgets will eventually follow. It’s as close to a mathematical certainty as you can get in these matters.

And the resulting, unavoidable prioritizations and tradeoff choices will cause a contraction of government’s size, and in the long run its scope, ambition, and reach. It will be forced to retrench. And then, and much more importantly, power will start to flow back to where it belongs — from the non-legislative branches to Congress, and from Washington to the states, and ultimately from the monopolies back to you and me, the people. At least, that’s my working hypothesis.

I started out determined not to amend the Constitution. After all, there’s nothing in the document as it currently stands that’s fundamentally flawed. We already know the formula for national happiness, we just have to follow it. But I reluctantly came to the realization that we do need to amend it. I cannot see a way around it. The good news is I think just two simple changes would be sufficient to do most of the work. These two amendments, I hope and trust, would generally shore up the four pillars and initiate the renewal of our happiness. 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.

That’s it. Uncle Sam won’t reform his ways voluntarily. He needs an accountability partner, a co-signer. And in our system, only the states can fill those roles. They’re the only entities that can exert pressure from the outside, like a flying buttress.

Now, if it turns out I’m wrong, and we add these amendments and they don’t work, then I’ve reluctantly concluded we will need a third and final amendment — as a last resort. Something along the following lines:

Each state fills one seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, with each justice serving no more than, say, twelve years.

To be sure, with this one I’m assuming a particular, extreme scenario in which, despite all our efforts, the four pillars remain unrestored and it’s the Court’s erroneous interpretations and stubborn refusal to correct them that is the roadblock. I am confidently hopeful we’ll never see that scenario. With the first two amendments, Congress and the president will have, not just the ability, but, I believe, the incentive, to resume their proper roles — and to drag a recalcitrant Court along with them. The Court will get the memo. But if not, well, then I’d take a deep breath and break glass and call in the states to install another flying buttress. And if that doesn’t work — God help us!

Ideally, these amendments would be proposed by Congress. Realistically, they will have to be proposed by the states, through an Article V convention. I’ve explained elsewhere why I think fears of such a convention ‘running away’ and ‘totally rewriting the Constitution’ are entirely misplaced. The short version of my argument is it takes three-fourths of them to ratify any change, and Congress is itself a sitting ‘constitutional convention’ that has never once ‘run away’ in this apocalyptic sense. But I’ll cheerfully take the imagined risks of a ‘runaway convention’ over the real and palpable risks of today’s runaway government.

I also suggest a trio of lesser amendments, relating to national lands, D.C. statehood, and Social Security. These, too, are reluctant. I include them only because they are necessary to ‘get right’ with the Constitution — to fully align our practice with our principles.

There’s more, as you’ll see, a lot more: immigration, ballot integrity, the territories, government reorganization, updating the federal calendar — pardon my sprawl! But again, the three planks I mentioned, and the two constitutional amendments, are the heart of the plan.

Does this all seem crazy? I suppose it must. But then, we live in a crazy age. In the context of American history and the present crises, I think the plan is actually pretty moderate. To be sure, it is radical, in the sense of going to the root. But then, it seeks a balance between what’s needed with what’s achievable, at least in theory. It packages an incrementalist approach as a comprehensive ‘program.’ But it’s not a platform, despite my perhaps ill-advised use of the word ‘planks.’ We do not have to make every idea in it happen. But we do have to do something. We have to try to restore the American Idea. And that means we have to start somewhere. Push a first domino and see what happens. The more institutions we decentralize, the more quickly the magic of decentralization can do its beneficial work.

Have I answered the question I set for myself? Judge for yourself. You may decide I’ve failed. Or perhaps you aren’t persuaded by my answer. Or dislike some of my ideas. That’s fine. But if my ideas aren’t right — help us find better ones.

Renewing the promise of American life is not easy. It is hard. It requires effort and patience and sacrifice. But given the alternative, do we have a choice? And in view of the tremendous blessings it offers for ourselves and our posterity — why not try?

Revised: April 19, 2024.

Published: June 21, 2013.

Author: Dean Clancy.

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One Reply to “Introduction”

  1. I am happy to have found your blog. I will share your site with my students as an example of a concerned American voluntarily entering the arena of public discourse to offer ideas and engage in socio-economic banter to find solid solutions.

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