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Friday, June 7, 2013

The Left-Wing Conservative: Against Big Government

I recently reconnected with an old high school friend with whom I had lost touch for over twenty years.

And as we do with many of our old friends, we picked up right where we left off --- in our case, discussing politics.

Our discussions then, and now, were not really about convincing each other - though in our youth we probably thought otherwise. Rather, they were, and are, more about seeing how many holes we could poke in each other’s positions. Both of us, I think, enjoy the intellectual chase of the debate much more than the kill of victory. Even these many years hence, in middle age, we have not (yet) found a political issue we firmly agree upon.

He is a self-described "conservative" Republican. But he's not a Tea Party wingnut-- he’s totally cool with science and evolution, and thinks that having elected leaders that are intelligent and Ivy League-educated can sometimes (he's thinking "Romney", not "Obama") be a good thing. And while his religious views lead him to traditionalist positions on moral and social issues, he doesn't just say "love the sinner, hate the sin", but actually lives it. 

In other words, he's a mensch.

I was flattered to hear that he was actually reading this blog. And charmed to hear that he liked it but didn't agree with any of it.

He is also, by profession, a marketing guy, so he challenged me about naming my political blog “The Left-Wing Conservative”. He wondered whether it was just a clever, catchy name, since he didn’t see too much that was “conservative” about it.

I explained to him, as I have in previous blogs, about how I see my "conservative" views as consistent with the conservative tradition traced through Edmund Burke, de Tocqueville, Montaigne and the ancient Greek polis.

He wasn't buying it.

He said to me “When am I going to see a real “red-meat” conservative viewpoint from you?”

So he got me to thinking. Do I have any “red meat” conservative views?

Yes. I'm against Big Government.

Like most people, I hate Big Government, by which I mean the Federal Government. Which means I think they should stay out of my business. Unless of course, I need them for something, like disaster relief or to repel an invasion, in which case I want them to swoop in like the wrath of God.

But since World War II, and especially since 9/11, we are more and more governed by a Federal Government that, whether Republican or Democratically led,  pulls more and more regulation and governing into the realm of secrecy, and moves more and more policy decisions into a "one size fits all" model tailored to narrow, powerful interests.

The TARP and bank bailouts were hashed out in a Treasury Department conference room with the very banks seeking relief (and are the same banks that later wrote 90% of the new banking regulations). The NSA has been given free reign to monitor every phone call and email in the country. And "No Child Is Left Behind" in being subjected to mindless standardized testing. And Agribusiness continues to be permitted by the Feds to override state laws that would require labeling of genetically modified food.

I think we are just too big and too diverse of a country to be governed so centrally, and our  disconnection has resulted in our detachment from seeing how the Federal Government has become less representative of its citizens.

While the US Constitution is not holy writ sent down from a fiery mountaintop, it is instructive on this topic.

The US Constitution is a treaty among several different independent states (In fact, it was typical in the Founders time for folks like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to refer to Virginia and Massachusetts, respective, as their "country").  Each state agrees to give up some of their own sovereign powers to a central federal government for roughly three general purposes:

1. Common national defense and security

2. Remove trade barriers among the states, and set some national standards, to create a national market for goods and services.

3. Establish a national baseline of individual civil rights for US citizens by guaranteeing equal protection of the law (people get treated the same under the law regardless of race, religion, national origin, etc.) and due process of law (the government cannot deprive you of your life, liberty, or property unless they give you notice, a hearing, right to counsel, etc. Also, it considers whether there are some areas of our lives that the government cannot interfere with, regardless of notice, a hearing, right to counsel, etc.)

Beyond these three general purposes, it was expected that public health, morality, and welfare would be taken care of by the individual states, the theory being that these standards vary based on culture, geography, and region, and therefore the states are in a better position to pass laws on these topics.

I'm sure we could argue about the details of the above three principles. In fact, I think we are supposed to -- these were all left very broadly cast, and our forefather's assumption was that citizens would be competent to use free speech, reason, and debate to sort out the details on how to fulfill these goals.

However, I think we have been laboring mightily against the reality that, aside from these common principles of mutual benefit, we really are, in many ways, still a collection of different countries, each with its own culture, priorities, and morals. This diversity is, overall, a good thing, I think. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to each state being a "laboratory of democracy", in which various ways of living can be explored.

I have lived in New Jersey almost my entire life, and while I have not traveled extensively, when I do and I am asked where I am from, my first thought is "New Jersey". And plenty of other people feel the same way about their own state.

Maybe the constant attempt to turn everyone into a "Real American" (as various parties and groups define it) is driving this excessive concentration of power. We are chasing after an abstraction and ignoring the real, tangible impact of many Federal policies, and denying our own separate states, or polis's vitality in the process.

Anthony Bourdain, the travel and food writer, speaks often of how his experiences in various countries have opened his mind and broken him of his Manhattanite superiority complex toward his fellow Americans. Now, when he visits places and meets people in the US that he used to dismiss as "hicks" in "flyover country", he says he now views them as he would citizens of a foreign country, and now sees the richness and complexity of their culture, even if he would not want to live in that culture.

(Another old friend recently caught me using the "flyover country" expression on Facebook, and rightly called me on it)

Perhaps if states want to pass laws I don't agree with regarding same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, medical marijuana, unions, regulation of businesses, creationism versus evolution,  and sex education, while I don't have to like it, perhaps I can view it as another "laboratory of democracy" working through a few experiments.

On the other hand, why should I be subject to the whims and prejudices of a politician that I did not even get the chance to vote for, or against? Why should senators from sparsely populated states representing a fraction of the total US population have so much sway over what happens in New Jersey?  And why are we being dictated to by a concentration of power in a swampy suburb between Maryland and Virginia?

So this left-wing conservative is now looking to keep it local.

 Organic Consumers article on Senators and how they vote (among other things)

The Week piece on how Wall Street may be responsible for writing America's laws

CNN piece on data mining

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