Denver Bar Association
November 2011
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The Government we Deserve

by Doug McQuiston

The Government we Deserve



s I watch the GOP presidential nomination race start to heat up, I find myself struck with a wave of sadness. The old axiom that we "get the government we deserve" has never been more apt. We demand that our politicians "do what we want them to," then wonder why they can’t figure out what the heck that is. We demand lower taxes, but will accept no cuts in government benefits or services. At Tea Party demonstrations, ardent Republicans stand with signs that say "Keep the Government Out of My Medicare!" On the other ideological side, there is nothing but an insatiable desire for more government "care," as if we will never have to pay back that largesse.

At one of the recent debates, the GOP candidates heard an explosion of applause when Ron Paul said we needed to "get our troops out of Afghanistan now." Only minutes later, the candidates faced a question from a member of the audience, likely someone with impeccable "Tea Party" credentials, demanding to know what they would do "to protect the women of Afghanistan?" Huh?

How did we get here?

When Ben Franklin walked out of Liberty Hall after the final touches were put on the Constitution, a woman asked him, "What sort of government have you given us?" He turned to her and said, "A republic, madam, if you can keep it." Can we?

These days, people demand to know what the government will do to "create jobs," as if that were even possible. As states go bankrupt, their government union members violently demonstrate against the smallest reductions in their benefits. Wall Street enterprises insist on keeping their profits, but sending their losses to the taxpayers, and our government meekly goes along. Are we still capable of doing as Franklin commanded?

We’ve lost the notion that our country is us, and that we each have an obligation to pull our own oar. We have neglected our duty to our ancestors who delivered our grand republic to us. We no longer think of the government as our representatives. It seems to us now just a source of "free" money, whether through welfare transfer payments or corporate rent-seeking. Self-reliance has fallen out of fashion. Now, if you don’t slurp your share of "free" feed from the government trough, you’re just a chump.

Was it really a half-century ago that a staunchly Democratic young president, rising to give his inaugural address, exhorted the crowd to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country"? Didn’t he say to the whole world that Americans would "pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, and oppose any foe, to secure the blessings of liberty"? What’s happened to us in these last few decades?

If John F. Kennedy was alive today, he would find no home in the Democratic Party. They have carried identity politics to such corrupting extremes that their constituency is reduced to an amalgam of need groups all clamoring for the government to do something for them. The word liberty has been stricken from their lips as an anachronistic thing of the past. They long ago abandoned the noble course Kennedy set for them that cold January day in 1961. The only "Big Idea" they can muster to get the economy back on track is to borrow trillions of dollars from our grandchildren to squander on bottomless pits of "stimulus" that fail to stimulate anything but the demand for more.

But would he be a Republican? Not likely. Their "Big Idea" on the economy begins and ends with tax cuts, as if businesses just need more cash for our economy to right itself. No one seems to notice that most large businesses are awash in cash, and banks are hoarding it in the trillions. Calling for tax cuts is easy—what’s lacking is the courage to ask the hard questions instead: how are we to actually cut spending? How small ought government be in the new millennium? No one in the GOP objected to deficit borrowing in the previous administration, and they seem no more interested than the Democrats in Kennedy’s notions of American greatness and exceptionalism.

So, what’s the answer? We need to be honest with ourselves first. It all started to happen when we began viewing the government as an indulgent parent, instead of as a daring, collaborative experiment in self-rule.

The problem is not our politicians. It’s us. We’ve lost the knack for looking out for ourselves. The time to get it back is running out.

The "conservative" and "liberal" labels now en vogue are backwards. Historically, a Classical Liberal was someone who believed we had the unalienable freedom to govern ourselves, to chart our own course, free from undue interference from a sovereign. But we also understood this right came with a responsibility to remain self-reliant, and not demand protection from the government for the consequences of our mistakes, big or small.

I am reclaiming that label today, and I hope it catches on. Classical Liberals believed in a small, competent government that did well the few things we entrusted to it. They were self-reliant, but also possessed of a civic spirit and a belief in the power of self-government. They took seriously the duty to be well-educated, active, involved, and willing to do their share for their country. They knew it wasn’t about "me," it was about "us." They were in good company— Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Ben Franklin were all Classical Liberals. De Tocqueville identified the philosophy as classically American. If he were to travel the country today, he would cry at what he saw.

Nearly 230 years after Franklin delivered it to us, we still have a republic, if only just barely. The question you each need to ask yourselves for next year, before you sit down to decide whom you’ll vote for is this: Can we keep it? D

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