Commentary: Is America the Federal Government?
Religion & Liberty Online

Commentary: Is America the Federal Government?

“While president, Calvin Coolidge warned Americans that if it was the federal government that came to their mind when they thought of ‘the government,’ it would prove costly,” writes Ray Nothstine in this week’s Acton Commentary. But as Nothstine points out, everywhere we turn the federal government is increasingly visible and intrusive. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Is America the Federal Government?

by Ray Nothstine

Writing about his observations of America in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “The people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe.” To the extent this statement is still true, what’s left of the notion of individual rule and self-government is under attack from centralized power in Washington. Furthermore, America’s identity is being transformed. So much so that in a recent speech Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal had to remind his own Republican Party leaders that, “America is not the federal government.”

But everywhere we turn the federal government is increasingly visible. It can be seen in the multiplication of Homeland Security checkpoints and Washington mandates. Debates in the nation’s capital center upon how much to increase government spending. Lawmakers demand additional taxes and revenue from the productive for the spending binge. The national debt and bureaucratic regulatory maze threaten not only economic prosperity but our inherent rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

The American Framers designed a system of government that divided power. The Tenth Amendment granted to the states any powers that were not specifically enumerated as tasks for the federal government. By itself, the very notion of the Bill of Rights places definitive limitations on government and centralized power. It’s being ignored.

While president, Calvin Coolidge warned Americans that if it was the federal government that came to their mind when they thought of “the government,” it would prove costly. Thomas Jefferson declared, “What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and power into one body.”

The concentration of power also increases in the secularized culture. In this society, people look away from the Author of benevolence and look first to government. It’s little wonder that the national debt is greater than the entire American economy and the number of Americans who receive food stamps is greater than the entire population of Spain.

The very fact that there is pushback from states and localities on issues like Medicaid expansion, light bulbs, and new environmental mandates, demonstrates the overreach. States and even sheriffs have declared their intention to nullify any new gun laws that violate the Constitution.

In the federal government’s appetite for overreach, it’s reinforcing the principle enshrined in  America’s Founding: that governance at the state and local level is the most well informed and superior servant of the people.

Currently, there is a battle over not just the soul of America, but its image. Does the country want to be known for respect of Constitutional freedom or become a symbol of federal power and decrees?

More and more, even the lines between the private sector and federal bureaucracy are blurred by the ever expansive regulatory state and cronyism. In 2010, Transparency International reported that the only countries where corruption was increasing faster than the U.S. are Cuba, Burkina Faso, and Dominica. The federal government is guilty of the very greed it says is typical of Wall Street as it ups its demands on the citizens.

In the same speech this year to the Republican National Committee, Jindal declared, “If it’s something you don’t trust the states to do, then maybe Washington shouldn’t do it at all.” Coolidge put it even better, saying, “Where the people themselves are the government, it needs no argument to demonstrate that what the people cannot do their government cannot do.”

The federal government has achieved and accomplished great things throughout American history, but it has done so because the true strength and power resides in the people. Even when the government mobilized armies to defeat totalitarianism or landed on the moon, it required the productivity of the private sector and the ingenuity born of freedom to supply the means for those achievements.

Is America the federal government? No. But as centralization progresses, the American identity will be compromised as it defers to federal power and control over more and more sectors of our life. The only remedy is a moral and virtuous people exercising their Constitutional rights and extracting the concentrated power entrenched in Washington.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).