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 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 where the people rule the rulers, where no man rules another without that other’s consent, and where families take care of themselves, local communities govern themselves, and individuals respect the life, liberty, and property of their neighbors because, well, that’s what decent people do. A land of justice, freedom, happiness, prosperity, and opportunity. A land of concord and goodwill. The sort of land that inspires men to fight and die for it, because it’s worth preserving.
Nowadays, let’s face it, that promise seems lost. The American idea is in retreat on all fronts. 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. We are slowly but surely losing our freedoms and our ability to govern ourselves. It’s not 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 the people must rule the rulers and not the other way around. But today America no longer seems exceptional in that sense, does it? Remedies seem impossible. Our rulers in Washington are unresponsive. They 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.”
Happily, that won’t be necessary. There’s always hope. We can avoid bullets while we have ballots. All of our current problems can be traced, in one way or another, to an excessive centralization of power. The answer, then, is decentralization, just as the answer to monopoly is competition and the answer to regimentation is freedom and the answer to despair is hope—hope and hard work. There are simple solutions, just no easy ones.
When individuals and communities govern themselves, good 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.
Happiness requires self-government. 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 only 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 have to really stand for individual liberty, civil rights, and local self-government. We have to really ensure equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none. We have to really insist on replacing chronic deficits with balanced budgets. We have to really demand that inflation give way to honest, constitutional money. We have to really replace bailouts with free enterprise. We 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.”
It won’t be easy. But if we do it, the blessings will be awesome.
Our 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.
Adams was also right: Freedom means the freedom to do what we should, not the freedom to do anything we want.
Government exists 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 the Constitution’s greatness is decentralization. The so-called “Living Constitution” centralizes power. The real Constitution decentralizes it. That’s why the Living Constitution must necessarily make us miserable, and only the real Constitution can make us happy.
True 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, or better yet as the foundation on which the four pillars rest.) 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, I endorse a return to the “full dinner pail” platform of William McKinley: honest money, free enterprise, balanced budgets, moderate tariffs, and an exclusive reliance on consumption taxes.
None of the planks is a silver bullet. The whole plan 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 should follow.
If I had to pick just one plank to start with, it would be restoring honest money. Doing that, I believe, does more than anything to create the conditions for all the other necessary reforms. Sound, honest, constitutional money is the key that opens the door to American renewal.
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, all of whose members want something for nothing, is forced to prioritize. That coalition, which cannot survive without ever-bigger government, dissolves. 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.
Next in order of priority is the restoration of fiscal common sense and discipline. American renewal requires that we reduce the overall size, scope, and reach of the federal establishment by limiting its power to accumulate debt. Achieving fiscal discipline will not be easy, but I believe the simplest path to doing so is to freeze peacetime federal spending and 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 realize smaller, constitutionally limited government. I see four tools in particular as essential for achieving these ends:
- Devolution: transfer of spending programs out of the federal portfolio to the states and the private sector, by means of the elimination of the programs at the federal level while simultaneously cutting tax receipts by a similar amount.
- Transitional block grants, to cap federal fiscal exposure and facilitate the eventual transfer of federal programs to the states.
- Abolition of the payroll tax, to facilitate necessary reforms of Social Security and Medicare (such as by means-testing) and their eventual transfer to the states.
- Voluntariness in all federal programs (i.e., making receipt of federal benefits 100 percent voluntary for individuals, by, for example, repealing the individual mandates in Obamacare and Medicare).
But wait, the reader may ask. Isn’t all this tantamount to repealing the New Deal?!
The answer is: No, not really. While the plan certainly does reject the redistributionist, ‘big government’ elements of the New Deal, it essentially preserves the New Deal’s one true 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 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 these four, distinct ‘New Deals’ may have offered in the 1930s, three of them are now clearly outdated. ‘New Deals’ 1 and 3 have proved, in practice, harmful and counterproductive. ‘New Deal 4’ needs no refutation. It refutes itself. That leaves ‘New Deal’ 2 (welfare programs and social insurance, as a safety net)—the only ‘New Deal’ that still seems to command universal popular assent. And it is not inherently antithetical to that particular ‘New Deal’ to means-test welfare benefits, nor to transfer welfare programs to the local level. Welfare is inherently local, after all.
One last point. The plan includes several constitutional amendments. I find this fact regrettable but unavoidable. We have no choice. Our problems are too deep. To resist the formal repair of our Constitution at this point is, paradoxically, to abet its decline and ruin. There are many possible amendments, of course, but I believe a package of three 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.
- Each state fills one seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, with each justice serving no more than twelve years.
Note: I regard this third amendment as necessary only if we cannot achieve judicial reforms by traditional legislative methods.
That’s it. Together, these three, or ideally two, 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. All three amendments are discussed in more detail, in the regulation, debt, and judiciary planks.
In short, 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? In a good way, yes. Our system is designed for incremental rather than radical change, and most of the time that’s an unalloyed 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, sometimes we need to be radical. To every thing there is a season.
It 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 make them, the blessings will be truly awesome.
Revised: April 27, 2016.
Published: June 21, 2013.
Author: Dean Clancy.