Reflections on the United States

Article excerpt

It is an observable irony of American life that so many of the country's historical heroes - men and women after whom cities have been named and monuments erected - contributed in the sphere of government, and yet Americans have always been decidedly ambivalent about the appropriate role of government in their national life. The Constitution of the United States, which was argued over from the Continental Congress of 1776 to the Bill of Rights of 1792, and thereafter in an important sense until the Northern victory in the Civil War, established a system of divided government. It did so because a large number of eighteenth-century Americans worried about the concentration of political power which they felt had corrupted the politics of the mother country. Strong government, in their eyes, was the enemy of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Of course, there were Founding Fathers such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who despaired of the untidiness, indeed the unruliness, of the early American governments. They distrusted so-called "states' rights" and believed that only a strong central government could turn the United States into a powerful country. Madison even preferred that the national government possess an unlimited veto over all state laws.

These were the so-called Federalists, and they were bitterly opposed at the founding conventions and for decades thereafter by the so-called Anti-Federalists who perceived the United States as a confederation of powerful states which would delegate certain restricted powers to the central government. The Anti-Federalists, at the risk of excessive generalization, represented a combination of those who distrusted government power per se and those who distrusted centralized power in Washington.

The Civil War decided the issue of secession. It did not quell the debate about the appropriate powers exercised by Washington and the states. Indeed, after the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, "states' rights" became a dogma in the South which, among other consequences, allowed Southern states to pass laws and enforce by other means segregation.

The role of the central government expanded slowly under the New Deal, then quite dramatically with the United States' entry into the Second World War. Washington reached the apogee of its power in the 1960s with the civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and continuing strong economic growth.

Now, of course, a strong movement is afoot to curb Washington's power vis-a-vis the states. This movement is being driven by the old American suspicions both of centralized government and of government power in general. It is being accelerated by economic forces that include the massive federal government debt and deficit, and by a visceral antipathy to taxation that is everywhere apparent in the United States. There is no observable constituency, or set of constituencies, that could be shaped into a political coalition in favour of higher taxes, the revenues from which in turn might be used by government to lead a collective effort to grapple with the country's growing social problems.

The Republican Party's "Contract With America," acted upon by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives under the leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich, reflects this antipathy to taxes and, more profoundly, to government itself. Indeed, so powerful is the anti-government message in the Contract that many Democrats entered a political bidding war with the Republicans to offer tax cuts and spending reductions. The partisan debates were therefore about the modalities of reducing the size of government in Washington. The 1996 presidential campaign, coupled with the House and Senate races, will undoubtedly feature fierce debates about the means for reducing the size of government.

It is worth asking, given the centrality of antipathy to government, what has brought about this widespread attitude. …