September 5, 2002

September 5, 2002 | Commentary on Political Thought

ed090502b: Who Needs a Government? A Declaration of Independence

Anarchy has yet to take hold in Lebanon, Maine, but the professional government crowd is in a tizzy. In June, the town's citizens rejected their municipal budget, closing their government for a good part of the summer.

The big issue was that the selectmen, who traditionally served part-time at $10 an hour, gave themselves an annual salary of $15,000 each. This was too much for the Lebanon Citizens for Better Government, which led the fight against the abuse of taxpayer money. The voters said no to the spending proposal, and the municipal apparatus shut down.

From the beginning, Americans have had a love-hate relationship with government. According to the Declaration of Independence, government is instituted to secure our fundamental rights, deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed. And while prudence tells us it should not be changed for trivial reasons, we reserve the right to alter or abolish government when it becomes destructive of these ends.

King George III learned this lesson the hard way. Among his many repeated usurpations against the colonists, he "erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance."

Nowadays we call these people bureaucrats. The good citizens of Lebanon follow in the footsteps of the patriots of 1776. They are not anarchists who reject the idea of government, root and branch. They just think they can govern themselves better than the local bureaucrats now calling the shots for most of the rest of us.

The American Founders went to great lengths to assure liberty and prevent tyranny, the twin prerequisites of free government. To do so, they carefully designed a constitutional system that enumerated and divvied up various powers among three separate branches of government. And since they remained distrustful of government in general and of a centralized federal government in particular, the federal government was to exercise only delegated powers, the remainder being reserved to the states or the people.

"The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined," Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers. "Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite."

This arrangement allowed self-government to flourish at the local level, where citizens would decide most of the questions of everyday political life. The mix of town hall meetings, citizen legislatures, jury trials and civic associations that defined local government in America - and shaped the independent character still evident in places like Lebanon, Maine - is most famously described in Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America."

To this day, most local officials are not professionals but citizens first and administrators second. Public office is for the most part a part-time post or a dollar-a-year gig. This all changed dramatically in the early 20th century. With the rise of modern liberalism and the progressive movement, government became more administrative, more bureaucratic, more "professional" - and far more pervasive.

The objective of modern liberalism has been to change the system of limited constitutional government into an instrument of liberal social reform, not restricted to the protection of certain unalienable rights, but broadened to comprehend the much more ambitious objective of achieving "progress." To this end, government had to become a dynamic, evolving project run by professional bureaucrats.

That is precisely what has happened over the last century. Bureaucracy grew as the result of deliberate decisions by national political leaders to expand the scope and activities of the state. If you need good evidence just look at the Federal Register, the ever-burgeoning compendium of federal regulations. Today there is virtually nothing in our lives that does not fall under the purview of government administrators, whether federal, state, or local.

 Tocqueville, worried about the fate of self-government, predicted that "a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform" would undermine democratic government. This form of despotism, he warned, "is not tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd."

By refusing to approve the transformation of their part-time city representatives into salaried employees, the citizens of Lebanon have rebelled in their own small way against the growing bureaucratization of American politics. And in shutting down their government rather than accepting a budget they think frivolous, they remind us that government is the servant and we are the masters.

Matthew Spalding is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation and editor of "The Founders' Almanac."

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Originally appeared in the Boston Globe