Protecting Us From Our Own Government

August 11, 2022

WHEN TEDDY ROOSEVELT visited Europe and met Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, he asked what the meaning of monarchy was in the 20th century. “To protect my peoples from their governments,” the Emperor replied.

When was the last time you heard a serious promise to protect you from your government? Come to think of it, who can protect you from your government?

The late William F. Buckley regularly commended a certain member of Congress, the name of whom has been lost to me. Anyway, on the first day of each session this congressman would approach the Well of the House to address a single question to the Speaker: “Where are we going to get the money?”

What happened? Why isn’t even overspending, the base issue, an issue any more?

It turned out to be a political loser. After years of hearing about big budgets, voters became inured to them. They became resigned to the reality that nobody really knew where the point of no return might be, or what spending level is sustainable, or who was going to do anything about any of it. The issue just wore us down. Unadulterated numbers will do that.

Republicans abandoned the philosophical case. That is, if we allow government to spend without constraint it will become a leviathan, it will grow so large that it becomes incomprehensible, that nobody can know what it is doing. And here is the important part: When we realize that, we will lose confidence in our own government, our society will begin to collapse.

So here we are. Nobody predicted the outcome of this last session, nor could they have. Legislative oversight? Hah, the political representation for all its huffing and puffing proved to be subsidiary. Government, even state government, now has a life of its own. It does what it will do.

An adjunct scholar of this foundation is the only person I know who in living memory predicted a legislative session accurately in any detail. Dr. Cecil Bohanon in the fall 2006 issue of The Indiana Policy Review said that the session that year would be . . . well, unpredictable.

A student rather than a critic, Bohanon did not blame the legislators or their political parties. Indiana government, he said, had with bipartisan recklessness fallen into the trap of many democracies — it had tried to do too much for too many. Bohanon narrowed the focus to just this: The problem with government bigness is not necessarily spending, it is accountability.

“One side seems to think that there is an endless untapped supply of citizen sacrifice to monitor an ever-expanding state,” he wrote. “The other side recognizes the importance of citizen oversight in a free society but recognizes its supply is limited.”

There is no doubt which side is winning. Indiana government has grown so complex there are not enough reporters or even informed activists to stay with its twists and turns. There’s simply too much going on. We are at the mercy of last-minute deals, spin doctors and fast-talking lobbyists, and even they don’t know the outcome with unintended consequences multiplying.

Bohanon warned that if we want the Statehouse to be reportable again — accountable again — we must stop piling more and more obligations on to it.

“The irony is that the more as a society we demand and expect from government, the less we get,” concluded Bohanon. “Only by conserving legislative attention and citizen oversight can things get better.”

The question to ask the next General Assembly, then, is not where it will get the money (we have given it the power to just take what it wants) but whether it intends to make government bigger or smaller, more accountable or less.

I’m afraid we all know what the answer will be. — tcl


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