Monday, February 21, 2011

Tea Party Time Machine

I have looked in vain on Craigslist for a used Delorean with a working flux capacitor.

I want one so I can take a trip back in time with my libertarian friends, whether they are tea partiers or not.

They talk an awful lot about what the Founding Fathers intended when they created the Constitution of the United States.  They insist the First Dudes wanted a very limited government, and they feel we should have one today.  They want fewer regulations, fewer laws, fewer taxes, fewer fees, fewer government agencies, etc.

I want Dr. Emmett Brown's time machine so I can acquaint them with the world in which Jefferson, Franklin, and others lived and to which the Constitution was a response.

Back to the Future III
But since Doc is still living in the Wild West with Clara Clayton, I will need to rely upon the words of someone who lived through the Revolutionary era, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur.  He wrote a popular book in 1782, Letters from an American Farmer, and in it is a famous essay, "What Is an American." In the essay, Crevecoeur waxes poetic about the differences between Europe and America:

It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything, and a herd of people who have nothing.  There are no aristocratical families, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury.  The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe.

Things have changed, haven't they?  The rich and the poor are quite removed from each other today.  According to figures from 2007, 10 percent of Americans own nearly 70 percent of the nation's wealth -- and the top 1 percent own nearly 34 percent.  The bottom half of the population?  It owns 2.5 percent of the nation's wealth.  I think half of the nation constitutes a "herd," don't you?  And 2.5 percent comes pretty close to "nothing."

The Constitution was written to restrain two sources of power that were prone to abuse, at least in the eyes of Jefferson & Company: the government and the church.  The British government had operated frequently through patronage (who you know, not what you know) and for its own benefit rather than for the people, and it had little accountability to its citizens.  The church was wealthy and influential since it had been closely integrated with the government.

But in the time since Washington grinned through wooden teeth, a new source of considerable power arose in the United States, the corporations ("the manufacturers employing thousands").

The framers of the Constitution understood that competing interests in the populace and within government could keep each other in check, but only if their powers were equitable.  How could they have known that corporations would develop to such size and influence, would hold more sway in the Capitol than the nation's citizens?  When Franklin was dangling that key from a kite string in a lightning storm, little could he have imagined something like General Electric -- projected revenues of nearly $142 billion in 2011.  If GE were a nation, it would be the 50th wealthiest country in the world.

Exxon Mobil's estimated revenues of $460 billion this year would rank it 21st among nations, just in front of Sweden.

If there had been institutions of such power and resources in Jefferson's time, I imagine he would have left us with a different Constitution.  And longing for a return to those "good old days" of Crevecoeur's life is a pointless daydream -- unless you can build your own flux capacitor.  In the meantime, corporations are perfectly happy to support the populist drive toward less government, since fewer regulations mean more freedom from accountability toward others and from responsibility for the public good.

Who, other than a strong federal government, would be powerful enough to counter the strength of such corporate giants?

The real problem, I tell my libertarian friends, is not that we have a big government; the problem is the kind of big government we have.  We have one that seems to work harder for corporations than citizens.  Changing that government might help; getting rid of it won't.


  1. Nice post. Just keep the cons out of your time machine or we could be living in a country that still has slavery and no rights for women.

  2. And btw, among many folks like myself (libertarian-leaning types), a point of distinction - when it comes to much of the incredibly enormous expansion of the federal government, and the parallel emasculation of state govts (no longer even remotely "equal"), I would point out that the constitution has a method for absorbing change. When it comes to ending slavery or giving women equal rights, or defining who can vote (18 years old now), amend the constitution.

    one problem that Libs and myself have is that we strayed from this roadmap. If the majority want to approve abortion, then pass a constitutional amendment - same with so many other issues. Don't "solve" problems by court rulings out of thin air, or by "administrative procedures" (EPA), or by grossly distorting "the common welfare".

    To me this is like unions and where I have gripe with them. I don't oppose unions, but I do oppose being FORCED to join a union. Either the union has value and people freely associate with it, or they do not.


  3. PS - I do agree that massive corporations would have led to a different constitution, but predicting how that would turn out is anyone's guess.

    The legal assignment of personhood to a corporation is a great flaw, IMO. It is a huge impact on our entire world, and yet is essentially never talked about, never challenged, never debated. It (corporation=person) just "is".