Way, way back in the darkest recesses of history – my history, that is – I had a brief exchange with a much older colleague about the presidential election that had just taken place. The year was 1976, and Jimmy Carter (God help us) had just become the President-elect. My colleague, whose name was Sam, asked what I thought of the matter.
“Well,” I said, “I was hoping for a different result. I wanted President Ford to be re-elected because I was close to certain that the Democrats would take both houses of Congress. Now we’re going to have a Democratic-controlled Congress and a Democrat in the White House.”
Sam nodded somewhat grimly. “A lot of people want one party to control Congress and the White House. They say that’s the only time ‘stuff gets done.’ Me, I’m looking for checks and balances, and these days there aren’t many.”
Truer words have seldom been spoken…and yet, Sam would have been appalled by what has followed in the forty-six years since then.
I could go many directions from here. I could detail how the two major parties have joined forces against the rights of the American people. I could list the many ways in which elected officials, oath-sworn to defend the Constitution, have betrayed that oath and that document. I could explore the unholy alliances politicians have formed with media moguls and industrial barons to shape public sentiment and behavior to their preferences. It’s all of a piece. But there’s a bigger story to tell, and it falls to me to tell it.
The “checks and balances” of which Sam spoke weren’t of the sort the Founding Fathers contemplated. Their concept was that the three-branch federal government would possess internal checks: each branch would be jealous of its own authority and therefore willing to halt the other branches when they transgress. The federal government as a whole would be checked by the authority reserved to the state governments. Those remained able to assert themselves against Washington through their representatives in the Senate. Finally, and not to be discounted, the limitations imposed on the imposition of direct federal taxes – “all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States” – meant that federal revenues would depend largely on the economic decisions of the populace. Should the citizenry decide to change those decisions in a way that would reduce Washington’s revenues, Washington would just have to suck it up.
The Framers did not imagine political parties as a part of the scheme. They regarded political parties as things to discourage. That’s why the original design installed the second-place finisher in the electoral college balloting as vice-president.
Isabel Paterson, in her landmark tome The God of the Machine, called the original Constitutional design “amazingly correct,” a masterpiece of political engineering. I cannot disagree. Nor can I disagree with her condemnation of the Amendments that undermined the design. But read her analysis for an education in how this nation, pulled together from disparate parts each of which was suspicious of the ultimate aims of the others, was originally supposed to work.
By 1976, the original system had been destroyed. The major parties had managed to take over the elections system, and had ensured that the president and vice-president would be of the same party. The Sixteenth Amendment had enabled Washington to impose direct taxes – taxes laid directly on individuals – “without regard to any census or enumeration,” and differentially according to “income.” Washington had reduced the states to mere administrative units of the federal will through “revenue sharing,” subsidies, and a host of arrogations of powers never delegated. The state governments had lost their representation in Washington with the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment. The Twenty-Fourth Amendment stripped the states of most of their authority over the franchise. The federal judiciary had been politicized.
Sam and I had been reduced to looking to the “two party system” for “checks and balances.” The original design had been destroyed. But the parties themselves had entered into a collusive arrangement through the appropriations process, the subsidies scheme, and the practice of “earmarks.” The acquiescence of Congress’s minority caucuses to the agenda of the majority caucuses could be counted on in the majority of cases.
The American people had already lost their voices in the affairs of their nation. What remained was a façade: the franchise, which has come to mean ever less as the years pass.
We were forty-six years ahead of Elon Musk:
As Elon Musk recently noted when recommending people vote for Republicans, “shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties.”… Musk is right. Not only is it an excellent outlook for the independent-minded American but it has been the reflex of the electorate — a healthy, real democratic inclination. The inability of one party to monopolize power will either compel both to compromise, or, in times of deep division, shut down Washington and incentivize governors to take care of their own business — which is how our federalist system was meant to work.
Yet we were already deluding ourselves.
You and I, Gentle Reader, are without voices that matter to anyone other than ourselves. In a phrase that distresses me by its accuracy, we’re “free-range humans” on a giant “tax farm.” Those at the levers of federal power have no more regard for our rights than a farmer has for the “rights” of his chickens. Washington collects our “eggs” and wrings our “necks” as it pleases.
Even the “free-range” part may end soon. Watch the price of fuel. Watch for new regulations to be laid on the acquisition and use of personal vehicles. And watch for interventions in the housing and mortgage markets to retard movement among the states.
Lysander Spooner, where are you when we need you?