“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong,” wrote the late journalist and professional cynic H.L. Mencken. In our modern world, the “answers” to our myriad and complex problems always seem to involve the use of government—through taxation, regulation, bureaucracy, and even military invasion.
As prevalent as that answer may be, it is usually—although not always—wrong, which is one lesson all Americans should learn from our unspeakably bad year. The pandemic has not only tragically killed more than 300,000 Americans, but has led to previously unimaginable restrictions on our freedom to live our lives as we choose.
We awake each morning pondering the terms upon which our leaders will even allow us to leave our homes. The COVID-19 restrictions keep changing and the goalposts keep moving. Perhaps we will one-day find out whether any of the governor’s oftentimes illogical and arbitrary edicts are working—but for now it’s on a need-to-know basis.
There’s no magic solution, but that’s the point. How many people think this not-particularly magical thing called “government” has calmly guided us through the coronavirus crisis? Although scholars dispute its authorship, this George Washington quotation is telling: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence—it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”
Sometimes there’s no choice but to use force, which is why we have a justice system based ultimately on compulsion. Our society, however, was founded on the idea that individuals generally know what’s best for themselves and they should be left alone to pursue their dreams free from unchecked dictates, albeit within a framework of checks and balances.
The founders knew the easy-button governmental solution often is worse than whatever problem it was trying to solve. With COVID-19, everyone is flying blind. We need some rules during unusual times, but when we transfer too many decisions from individuals to government, we give imperfect politicians and regulators power to make choices for us based on their limited insights and political interests.
In the past year, we’ve also experienced the most vicious national election in our lifetimes. Conservatives have argued that this was a “Flight 93” election (referring to the 9/11 flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field). As Vox summarizes that argument, “America has been hijacked—and electing Donald Trump is their last chance to storm the cockpit before it crashes.”
Now that he’s lost, it’s no wonder that the craziest Trump supporters are talking openly about secession, martial law, and even civil war. If one claims that a “rigged” election loss means the destruction of everything we hold dear, one shouldn’t be surprised that people become radicalized. Some elements on the left haven’t been much better, as they’ve viewed GOP control of the federal government as tantamount to fascism.
As America’s political and cultural disputes become akin to tribal warfare, it’s easy to forget about the solution that was embedded in our Constitution—a document that both sides at least pretend to still care about. The founders limited the powers of the federal government, reaffirmed the pre-existing natural rights of the citizenry, and created dispersed layers of power to limit misuse of government muscle. We need to re-learn those ideals.
Long before Trump tore apart our fraying social fabric, conservative political activist Grover Norquist talked about the “Leave Us Alone Coalition.” The idea is simple, compelling, and in perfect harmony with the nation’s founding principles. We need not agree on religion, share the same cultural preferences, or come from the same regions, but we can unite in the belief that the government should basically just leave us the heck alone.
Norquist portrays two warring factions. The nation has a “takings coalition” that views “the proper role of government as taking things from one group and giving them to someone else.” This includes the public-sector unions, “the social welfare industrial complex” and “utopians” who want to re-jigger society. Then, he notes, there is a group that does “not want the government to give them something. Or take something from others…They just want to be left alone.”
Most conservatives believe themselves to be part of the latter coalition—yet that’s an increasingly preposterous position. You are not motivated by a desire to have the government leave people alone if you support tariffs, stricter immigration controls, limits on tech firms, higher defense and intelligence spending, asset-forfeiture laws, a stepped-up drug war, and much of the social-conservative agenda.
Maybe the New Year might usher in a truce. If we want the government to leave us alone, then we need to be willing to leave them alone. Until Americans spend less time “owning” the other side and more time restoring some governmental boundaries, all of us will labor under a tightening yoke.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.