Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“The Self-Sustaining Sovereign,” By Bruce Frohnen

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo by Sebastian Zwez. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most interesting news from Europe, in the midst of its cultural suicide by immigration, is a little-noted spat between the German chancellor and the British prime minister. It seems our British friends are balking at the idea of setting up a separate military for the European Union, that organization Europeans until recently were told would simply make for easier, freer economic trade. Oddly, this development comes after many years in which there was talk about “devolution of power” around the globe. And there have been genuine instances of increased local power. In the United States, we have seen states legalize recreational drug use and physician-assisted suicide. In Europe, reports have been coming in for years of a restructuring of power that empowers localities. Belgium recently went without a central government for a year and a half. None of its national parties or politicians could cobble together a working coalition until there was general agreement to cede even more powers to its ethnically centered regions. Those regions already exercised significant control over social policy, budgets, and even commercial treaties with foreign nations. Scotland has taken back significant powers of self-rule from the United Kingdom, exercising them through its own Parliament. Even tiny Wales has been ceded control over much of its own administration. Europe, if one concentrates on these examples, is enjoying a rebirth of local autonomy.

But these highly interesting examples mask a very different and contrary trend toward centralization of power. For evidence one may look to the European Union’s shrill response to the desperate attempts of some member nations to stem the tide of immigrants flooding them from the Middle East (and bypassing other nations in the Middle East that could but will not take them in). As elsewhere, local authority within the political structures of Europe is a malleable thing that can be given or taken away by those in power. Indeed, what made Belgium’s “no government” and devolutions in Belgium, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere possible was the confidence of the people and the elites that the state would go on pretty much as it always had even with such cultural window-dressing as was being demanded by the ethnically inclined. Belgium proved the point. Services, from garbage collection to the issuance of subsidy and welfare checks, continued unabated as if the machinery of government was automated, which, thanks to the legal infrastructure of today’s massive administrative state, it largely is.

The social democratic state, which Europe has in full and the United States is cementing under the Obama administration, is in fact a machine for tending to the needs of a nation of dependents. Overseen by cadres of bureaucratic “experts,” such a machine requires little from the people it serves to keep going as planned and provided for in various pieces of more or less permanent legislation. And so the central state (and the elites running it) is happy to cede to mere citizens a patina of self-government. But it is only a patina, a film growing on the thick metal of increasingly centralized power. In the United States, of course, that centralized power resides in Washington, whatever residual influence states may exercise. In Europe it increasingly resides within the extranational structures of the European Union.

The ethnically inclined, even if they are in control of the government of an EU member state such as Hungary, are not allowed to exercise the most basic element of political sovereignty, dominion over their own territory. They may not defend their borders from millions of poor, culturally quite different and potentially radical immigrants. Why not? The ideological guilt of certain elites aside, there are long-term reasons why powerful, sovereign powers might want to continue bringing cheap labor into the nation and, at least as important, to continue asserting sovereign power from the new, developing center. The American states are not formally invested with full powers of dominion, but here the central government has chosen not even to enforce its own laws to protect its people from immigration, or even foreign criminals. Dominion is, as I noted, an essential element of national sovereignty; its exercise by mere member states would undermine the continuing gathering of power within the hands of the European Union. In addition, of course, the desire to maintain one’s culture today is mislabeled racist (its actual roots are in culture, not genetics) and bespeaks a valuation of cultural particularity more fundamental than the occasional government-subsidized festival or even the permanent government-subsidized provision of medical services and the like through ethnically identified hospitals.

If the government chooses (as it often does in Europe) to provide benefits through a given ethnic or religious group, it retains its control by the very fact of its subsidy. Anyone who doubts this power should remember the Obama administration’s treatment of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity being forced to cooperate in provision of contraceptives and abortifacients through its government-mandated health care plan. In addition, in principle at least, the number and types of “cultural” institutions the central government can subsidize is infinite. So long as the central government has ultimate control, including over matters of conscience, why should it not “respect” the habits of dress or food or the self-identification of the members of most any group?

Key to this dynamic of centralizing political power is the position of the citizenry as customers or wards of the state rather than as self-governing peoples. As the administrative state grows ever larger and the people become ever more dependent on its ministrations, there is less and less room for meaningful political action. Social democracy having become the public ethic and motivator of governmental action, legislatures are concerned chiefly with overseeing the administration of the state, and occasionally with addressing some scandal or debating the intricacies of small policy differences. Thus, for example, American politics today often are dominated by debate over whether socialized medicine should be provided directly by the state (the original Hillary Clinton, European “single payer” model), through open control over an oligopoly of insurers (Obamacare), or through provision of “tax credits” to be used by people within that same oligopoly of insurers (the typical Republican “alternative”).

Debates over such minutiae are electorally important, at times, but rarely are allowed to override the central purpose of governing elites, which is to keep the machinery running. We see this operational logic in our own Congress. Why on earth would House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell choose to geld themselves in their dealings with the Obama administration over issues as important to their political base and common humanity as the support of Planned Parenthood’s selling of baby parts (or for that matter of Obamacare itself)? Why refuse to take strong legislative action amending a massive spending bill to take out such inexcusable support for barbarism? Because Obama would veto the bill, and these “leaders” have no greater fear than that of the machinery of government pausing in its perpetual motion.

Many conservatives now are calling for new leadership, given the abject failure of those currently in power to consider the very obvious demands of their constituents that they, for example, put an end to Obamacare, defend the nation’s borders, and return to some semblance of moral sanity on abortion policy. But, craven as the leadership has been in its service to corporate interests at the expense of the interests and will of the people (as well as their own promises), the people themselves consistently have demanded the kinds of policies that empower the self-sustaining sovereign.

Leadership talk of the “disaster” of the previous government shut down is overdrawn, but not made up. The people themselves expect the government to continue pumping out their checks and continue servicing them in the myriad ways our proto–social democratic state promises. The people claim that they do not want Obamacare, yet most still appear convinced that the national government should guarantee that no health need goes untended or uninsured—as if a bureaucratic program can actually produce on that promise better than the decentralized efforts of free people in their own associations. Thus, it is not surprising that Boehner and McConnell heed the Chamber of Commerce’s donation-backed demand for a centralized government allowing for the outsourcing of healthcare expenses, downward pressure on citizens’ wages, and above all keeping the machinery running. The people in general lack a coherent voice and, too often, a coherent, long-term commitment to limited government and self-rule.

A number of procedural reforms could bring the self-sustaining sovereign again under the power of the people’s representatives. Replacing vast continuing resolutions with a coherent budget process relying on spending and cost estimates rooted in reality; instituting definite sunsets on all programs, requiring their review and renewal (should they remain necessary) through overt legislative action; and, most importantly, putting an end to bureaucratic rulemaking through a return to the making of actual, Congressionally arrived-at law. All these reforms would vastly increase the power of the people and their representatives to govern themselves, rather than merely service sovereign machinery.

Before any of this can happen, however, the people must learn to consistently expect less of their national government and more of themselves. They must become willing to suffer without government checks or services, perhaps for an extended period of time and in many cases forever, if they are to become again self-governing. Even as leaders in both parties, utterly dependent on the self-sustaining sovereign for their own political power and standards of living, assure us that only the federal government can “guarantee” all good and necessary things, we must remember what the French defender of liberty, Alexis de Tocqueville, pointed out almost two centuries ago: anyone who asks for anything from liberty except itself, is born to be a slave.


Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.

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