Citizens in Name Only

President Barack Obama said this in his inaugural address:

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”

After listening to him for several years and learning about his political leanings, my guess is the above passage has to do with you paying higher taxes and more people asking what their country can do for them.

Mr. Obama wasn’t calling for more private initiative and less bureaucracy — but rather just the opposite.

We don’t need a “new” era of responsibility — we need the “old” era of responsibility back — a time when middle and working class people didn’t look to the taxpayers for a hand out or even a hand up. Most people support aide to the poor. The goal of Democrats is to win supporters by creating more dependents, and they’re reaching beyond the ranks of the truly needy to find them.

What’s required instead is more people doing what our forebearers did: take responsibility for themselves and not expect big government to do it for them.

One aspect of the debate during the founding of our nation was the question of whether Americans were up to the task of governing themselves — or did they need a king?

While few people today would probably admit to wanting a king, they’re just fine with a nanny. Too many of our citizens today seem to prefer to hire bureaucrats to raise and educate their kids, to watch over their retirement funds, and manage their health care. Democrats and other trough feeders are happy to step up and take the job, as long as they get a nice salary and guaranteed pension at an increasingly burdensome expense to taxpayers.

As I keep pointing out, the country is already past the point of being able to afford all these government middlemen. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation and the Truth in Accounting organizations have effectively pointed out—we’re fast approaching bankruptcy. The only solution is to drastically lower government spending and have our countrymen and countrywomen engage in more of the do-it-yourself side of life.

President Obama wants you to hand more power over to government — he thinks that’s the difficult task. Actually, it’s more difficult — but more satisfying — to live free and to take responsibility for yourself.

Last year I quoted two passages from talks given by Alan Pell Crawford, the author of “Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson.” What follows in large part is taken from previous posts, including this one.

In an interview with reason.tv, Crawford had this to say:

“The system is completely whacked at this point. The only way to get out of this ‘American Idol’ approach to American politics, I think, is to somehow engage the people not just as citizens on election day but every day.

[Thomas] Jefferson’s ideas about the individual citizens at the local level administering their schools, running their police departments, administering justice — all of this kind of stuff — in a daily kind of way strikes me as the only way those habits of mind and character can be maintained in a way that makes self government possible.”

I noted that Republicans are supposed to believe in personal responsibility. They better stop waiting for someone to ride in on a white horse and rescue them from the Democrats and ineffective, liberal, or corrupt Republicans at any level of government.

When Crawford spoke at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C., he discussed an incident from two hundred years ago that is relevant to today’s GOP at the grassroots level. Crawford discussed one of the contributions Thomas Jefferson made to American political thought after his retirement from public office.

It involved a lesson Jefferson learned during his second term as President and then wrote about years later. It’s an example of what the Republic was supposed to be in Jefferson’s view — a place where citizens acted as an effective check on the over-reach of their government.

During his second term in 1807, President Jefferson won passage of the Embargo Act. Here is how one source summed up the matter (emphasis added):

“Jefferson’s most vexing problems as president grew out of the war between Britain and France, which had resumed and involved much of Europe. Both sides ignored the neutral rights of the United States, but since Britain commanded the seas, its actions most offended Americans. Particularly objectionable was the practice of impressment, in which British warships stopped American vessels and impressed, or forced, American seamen into British service. Not wanting either to submit or be forced into war, Jefferson, in 1807, gained passage in Congress of the Embargo Act, which halted exports to both Britain and France.

Measures of this sort had been used successfully by the colonists against the British before the Revolution. However, the embargo was bitterly opposed by shippers, especially in New England, who claimed that it did more harm than good, and that the government was tyrannical in enforcing it. The embargo’s failure was painful to Jefferson, and it was repealed at the very end of his presidency.

Then almost a decade later in 1816 Jefferson’s views were solicited from Virginia leaders as they contemplated rewriting their state’s constitution to deal with issues stemming from population growth in the west. Specifically, Crawford said, they wanted his thinking “on the proper distribution of power in a constitutional republic…”

According to Crawford, at that time Jefferson expressed his view that there was a fatal flaw in the American political system but that it could still be redeemed. Jefferson corresponded with his friend Benjamin Rush during this period, and Crawford summed up one important point from their exchange:

“The flaw…was that America was rapidly becoming a republic in name only. Power derived from the people, it was true, but they possessed this power only on the days of their elections. After that, Rush said, it is the property of their rulers.”

Starting soon after the founding of the nation there was a power transfer from the local level to the states and from the states to the federal government. In Crawford’s words, this transfer of power was “turning the ennobling challenges of self government into mere problems of administration.” Crawford continued:

“True self government, Jefferson believed, required the active participation of well informed citizens. Administration, by contrast, relied on a professional class of increasingly unaccountable government officials — and this makes all the difference in the world.

As this transfer of power took place, Jefferson believed that as ordinary people were denied the opportunity to run their own affairs their capacity to govern themselves would diminish and over time disappear.

The citizens would lose any attachment to their liberties and lack the will to resist their usurpation by ambitious men like Hamilton and Burr.”

Today, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr have been replaced by countless well-funded special interest groups of every tax-eating and left-wing stripe. (Emphasis added:)

“The inevitable result, Jefferson was convinced, was the moral corruption of the American people and in short order despotism on the European model.

Fortunately, he believed there was a way to avoid this calamity. But it required the direct involvement of the people themselves, for they, he had decided, were the direct repository of the spirit of liberty.”

Crawford pointed out that while Jefferson had always believed in limited government, he had seen that the people who had most effectively resisted the embargo years earlier were those in the townships of New England. It was where government was the “closest to the people, and thus the most direct expression of the people themselves.”

Jefferson’s remedy was to suggest nothing less than radical decentralization, where all powers were left to the local level except those which could only be exercised statewide or nationally.

“Only when the people were fully engaged in securing their own liberties, Jefferson said, was government at the national and continental scale at all conceivable.”

The past 200 years, of course, has seen a steady acceleration of power and tax dollars transferred from one segment of society to another. Too many Americans from coast to coast have forfeited their responsibility of self-government. They have handed it off to bureaucrats and elected or party officials. The result has been a moral, and in fact, intellectual corruption.

Why else would so many people tell poll takers that they think Barack Obama can solve their personal economic problems? Such ignorance doesn’t happen by accident.

Instead of the ennobling challenges of self government creating a culture where citizens are engaged, Americans shirked their responsibility and handed over their power. Now they must take it back. Voting on election day isn’t enough, and never has been.

©2009 John Francis Biver