A Tear in the Social Fabric
Winston Churchill saw the family this way: “There is no doubt that around the family and home all the greatest virtues, the most dominating virtues of human society, are created, strengthened and maintained.” True, but with this one caveat: We can guard that drawbridge and provide our kids all of the moral lessons we think they need, but it’s impossible to wall them off entirely from others who don’t receive similar grounding. Unless society as a whole is committed to moral behavior, everything we build for our families can be destroyed in an instant.
Take the mean streets of Chicago, where dozens of children die violently every year. Typically, the only mistake they made was being “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The columnist Bob Herbert, who has written extensively about this tragedy, interviewed Ester and Eugene Stroud after their sixteen-year-old son, Isaiah, was stabbed to death on his way home after winning a dance contest. This is heartwrenching to read:
Their grief, after nearly a year and a half, seemed still to be weighing on them, like a cloak that cannot be lifted. . . . Mr. Stroud, his eyes red, recalled playing chess with his son and teaching him to swim, and watching old
movies on television. . . . Mrs. Stroud said, “. . . Maybe this is just a mother talking, but I think the world is a little different without him.
Mr. Herbert also interviewed the Reverend Autry Phillips, who said, “We’ve got young people pulling out guns at 12 o’clock in the afternoon and shooting all over the place. A lot of them are angry because their daddy’s not around and their mama’s on crack. Who was there to teach them how to behave?”
Very simply, my friends, that’s what it comes down to. When families are torn apart, our entire social fabric inevitably rips to shreds right along with them. It takes strong, united fathers and mothers to teach children how to behave. The children deserve no less.
Parents could start the lessons with their own example each morning, by the way, as they set out the cereal, juice, and milk on the breakfast table.Social Conservatives vs. Fiscal Conservatives
You know, when fiscal conservatives try to distance themselves from conservatives, I just don’t get it. (That’s what I meant back on page 14 about the criticism I get for talking so much about “social issues.”) After all, it’s obvious, at least to me, that everything is tied together. By fighting for marriage and the traditional family, we’re also fighting against poverty and crime. Without tackling it all at once, how else can we achieve our goals of smaller government and lower tax rates?
If you disagree, I’m willing to listen, but I believe that one thing leads to another. Stronger families will produce the educated workers who will be able to generate more total tax revenue. As that happens, we’ll see a decline in the need for bigger government, higher spending, and larger deficits. It’s a no-brainer: Local, state, and federal governments will thereby be able to reduce outlays on welfare, food stamps, house and energy assistance, health care, law enforcement, and—last, but not least—prisons.
I see this goal as a win-win for ALL conservatives. Let the liberals continue to push for a redistribution of wealth, as President Obama clearly intends. But instead, we conservatives should call for a rededication to marriage and family, with all of the societal benefits that will definitely follow.True Self-government
Let me again stress the parallels between family and government and even church. When a corrupt leader is in office, he corrupts what he leads. This is true of a family, true of a church, true of a nation. A corrupt father will ultimately corrupt his family. A corrupt pastor will corrupt, influence, affect, and infect his church. And a corrupt elected official will infect his nation with corruption.
I like to tell a great background story to this idea from the ninth chapter of the book of Judges in the Old Testament. It’s about Gideon’s son Abimelech, who craved leadership and elevated stature. But he did not want to serve the people (as so many of our politicians claim they want to do); he wanted the people to serve him. At first glance, it might have seemed that he was offering a pretty good deal: If they would only consolidate power in him, he would
their lives. This “simplification” would involve taking their responsibilities upon himself (translation: he would be taking from them
himself). That kind of political promise is gravely dangerous.
There are two basic elements that will collapse any organization, be it a family, a business, a church, or a government. Number one: consolidating power in the hands of too few people. That ignores the warning in the classic statement that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Number two: a people abdicating personal responsibility in order to remove any risk to and for themselves.
Our founders were brilliant in deciding that power would be constitutionally distributed carefully among the states, leaving the federal government very limited in its boundaries. Every amendment in the Bill of Rights expressly tells the government what it is forbidden to do. Not one of them explains what the people can’t do.
Just as there are the two elements that will collapse any organization, so there are two results that will predictably come from making a single leader solely responsible for the national interest without any sharing of responsibility. First, the cowardice of the people will be revealed, because they simply do not want to be held accountable. Second, the corruption of the leader will become apparent. You can count on this: When leaders want those in their charge to become more dependent rather than less so, they are definitely moving toward corruption.
Back to Abimelech’s schemes: His youngest brother, Jotham, saved the day with a very clever story about three different types of trees (an olive tree, a fig tree, and a vine tree) that were offered the position of king of all trees. All rejected the idea and all, significantly, are productive bearers of fruit. But the bramble bush, a weak and pesky plant that produces nothing useful, wanted the post. Jotham’s point was that the weakest, rather than the strongest, feels the urge to dominate others. But real leadership is about risk, not self-gratification. Jotham could be talking about politics today. I’ve often said, “If you don’t like the sight of your own blood, then don’t get involved in political battles; just buy a ticket and watch from the stands!” It is a full-contact sport; those of us who choose to participate all leave the field bloody, bruised, and scarred.
Further, as I’ve thoroughly outlined in a previous book,
Do the Right Thing
, the very best form of government is self-government. It’s the goal that every honorable leader should seek to implement for his or her followers. In the family, a good parent builds independence in his or her children, not dependence. I can’t imagine that a parent would feel successful if a forty-year-old child was still living at home and was unable to balance a checkbook, wash his own laundry, clean up his own room, drive himself to do errands, or responsibly find a job or income in order to pay his part of the freight. The idea of a child’s remaining permanently dependent on parents is heartbreaking. By the same token, the idea of pastors’ making parishioners solely dependent upon the church ministry is the antithesis of New Testament Christianity. Instead, the Scriptures make clear that the pastor’s role is to equip the saints or the parishioners to do the work of ministry as individuals. A church that provides only a forum for the pastor’s ideas and encourages worshippers to follow him or her without becoming directly and personally involved in some type of genuine, living ministry to others is not even close to the biblical norm of the purpose of church.
Finally, when politicians encourage people to become increasingly dependent upon them and the government programs they create, they’ve violated those people’s sovereignty and autonomy as individuals. You will recognize this theme throughout this book, for I firmly believe that such abandonment of personal responsibility can lead to the destruction of our nation. We must be on guard: Whether we are talking about parents, pastors, or politicians, the goal should never be to create dependence on a leader or a government program; the aim should be to nurture independence that will empower and equip, not enslave.
The Further You Drift from Shore, the More Likely You Are to Be Lost at Sea
We Need a Return to Local Government
et’s say you get your family in order—you raise your kids to be responsible citizens, and they grow up to be responsible, civil, humane adults. Congrats! If every family in America were like yours, we’d be in great shape.
Of course, this is probably a dream (I’m fine with being called an optimist, but I’m certainly not naive), and even if we could somehow strengthen all of our families and thus reduce the poverty and the crime rate to eliminate some of the need for welfare, prisons, and law enforcement, we’d still need our government to provide a few basic things. We’d still need highways and public schools and laws and a military to make our country stable.
No American I’ve met would argue against these things, but we constantly seem to get mired in a debate about who’s responsible. Let’s look at it simply.
If you run a family, you know everyone you’re responsible for governing. You know what they need, what they don’t, what they want, and what they don’t want. You know what you can afford and you probably know the best way to get it. What if some stranger from the next town over came to your house one day and said he would take care of running your family for you if you gave him a certain amount of your income in exchange? You would have a say in the matter, but, oh wait, he’d also be in charge of a few other families—all different from yours—who would also get a vote. Would you trust him?
My guess is you wouldn’t. But this is what it’s like at the federal level of government—a bunch of strangers take your tax dollars and figure out how best to put them to use. They don’t know you, and they don’t understand the needs of your community like you do. As a result, they set up programs and pass laws in an effort to please everyone (often pleasing no one), and you have very little say in what happens. And the bigger we allow our federal government to get, the worse the problems become.
Every time Washington enacts a new law or mandate, you can be sure that the states, the private sector, and the people are left with less control over their destinies than they had the moment before that bill was signed. Politicians get so caught up in arguing the merits of a particular provision that we don’t see the overall shift in power, especially when the bills are so large that we can’t deal with their totality. Power is a zero-sum game. In other words, whenever the federal government accumulates more power, the states and the people inevitably lose some autonomy they previously had. Eventually, we can lose our way entirely.
That slow and steady drift . . . drift . . . drift has been going on for a long time, but this is not how the Founding Fathers intended our country to be run. The most cursory reading of early documents from our nation’s founding make it clear that the original idea was a very small federal government that basically protected our borders and made sure that within the borders we could travel and do business freely. The concept was quite unmistakable—the best government would be limited and local, because it would be closer and more accountable to the people being governed. Consider the argument James Madison presented in favor of the Constitution in Federalist Paper No. 45:
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State.
Madison obviously never envisioned FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society, or Obama’s “Fundamental Transformation.” To young people today, his words must sound as though he’s talking about life on another planet. I’ll bet that in Madison’s wildest dreams he never imagined Supreme Court decisions, like
Roe v. Wade
, that would turn the courts into a bottomless pit of federal power. We’ve gone so far out to sea that we’ve actually reversed roles, so that now it’s the federal powers that are “numerous and indefinite.” With the current administration at the helm, they’re getting more numerous and indefinite every day!
The country Madison describes doesn’t even remotely resemble the United States of the early twenty-first century. How could this happen? What can we do? Well, the first thing we must do is set a goal: to recalibrate the balance of power closer to the original Madisonian ideal.
Ronald Reagan understood this in 1981, when he declared in his first presidential inaugural address, “All of us need to be reminded that the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government.” In his 1982 State of the Union address, he said, “Our citizens feel they’ve lost control of even the most basic decisions made about the essential services of government, such as schools, welfare, roads, and even garbage collection. And they’re right.” Reagan knew what was happening. But Reagan came and went, and the tidal pull of federal control has continued. If Reagan felt that frustrated about the expansion of federal power in 1982, imagine how he’d feel today.Federal Money Means Federal Control
Federal aid to the states has been growing steadily since the Great Society of the 1960s, interrupted only by a decline under President Reagan. We keep hearing that the $862 billion stimulus—revised upward from the original paltry $787 billion Congress passed—didn’t accomplish anything, but actually it did. In the first quarter of 2009, for the first time in our history, federal aid became the largest source of revenue for state and local governments. What a proud day! They must’ve been popping open the champagne in Washington when they heard that.