Federalism

Low Trust Cultures Pay a High Tax

“The most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” This is how four-time British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, described the United States Constitution in 1878.

George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other Founders considered the Constitution to be “little short of a miracle.” 

These thoughts had been on my mind all week while considering what to share in commemoration of Constitution Day – September 17, 1787 – the day the Framers completed their draft of the Constitution.

Then I came across this headline:

“Parents Don’t Want Their Kids to Become Politicians.” 

“The vast majority of Americans – a whopping 90%,” according to the 2020 American Family Survey, “don’t want their children to pursue politics as a career.” The article suggests “there has been an erosion of trust in government” and that “many Americans have become disillusioned with politics.”

The next headline wasn’t any better:

“Most Americans Think Government Is Corrupt.”

A Pew Research Center Poll reveals that more than 70% of Americans believe the government at the national level is not open, transparent or accountable.

Just like the flashing check engine light in my 2003 pickup truck, these articles contain a warning that something is definitively wrong. Houston, we have a serious governance problem.

How can we reconcile the positively glowing statements about our Constitution from prominent historical figures with the nuclear meltdown glow of the findings in the American Family Survey and Pew studies?

Our constitutional system was like the Back to the Future DeLorean among horse-and-buggy governments typical of the age. The United States had established a revolutionary governing vehicle designed specifically to transport a self-governing people to their unique pursuit of happiness better and faster than any other known form of government.

This futuristic governing system established under the U.S. Constitution was, and still is, “little short of a miracle,” “the most wonderful work ever struck off by the brain and purpose of man.”

However, like any vehicle with the passage of time,  its driver determines whether to go around the track to the left or the right. And don’t forget that frequent checks  under the hood and regular maintenance are required.

These days,  we only seem to care about  who should or shouldn’t drive the car, to the left or to the right around the track. Meanwhile, the check engine light on our vehicle of state is flashing wildly.

Our constitutional system of government is based on trust — trust that people can and will govern themselves at the most local levels. This erosion of trust has corroded our vehicle of state from the inside. Clearly, the nation is at a constitutional crossroads and in dire need of a pit stop.

The U.S Supreme Court reaffirmed that the manufacturer’s specifications of our constitutional automobile established a delicate balance of delegated powers to the national government and that was critical to preserving the self-governing voice of the American people.

“The Framers thus ensured that powers which ‘in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people’ were held by governments more local and more accountable than a distant federal bureaucracy.” NFIB v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

In Federalist 45, James Madison described the balance this way: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.” 

However, the erosion of trust in our constitutional system, in the people governing themselves locally, is breeding frustration nationally. Some years ago, I came across this maxim, “low trust cultures pay a high tax.”

As Washington, D.C. assumes more and more power never delegated to it, the voice of the American people diminishes, feelings of helplessness increase, and  their confidence in government falters. Their self-governance muscles atrophy, and they no longer check or restrain the growth and assumption of power at the national level. This perpetuates the frustrating cycle of ever-increasing centralizing power.

Perhaps we should use this election year to focus on the repair and maintenance of our constitutional car and heed the warning given by Alexander Hamilton at the New York Ratifying convention in 1788.

“This balance between the national and state governments ought to be dwelt on with peculiar attention, as it is of the utmost importance. It forms a double security to the people.”

Tending to the repair and maintenance of our constitutional vehicle will restore the trust of the American people in the system by magnifying their governing voice at the most local level.

 


In Depth: Federalism

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