June 16th, 2009

The United States of America: Too Big, To Fail

America is too big. As centralization of power has increased in Washington, federal effectiveness has correspondingly decreased as the overall population grows, and along with it the ratio of political representation. Disenfranchisement continues to swell among the near-powerless masses, each channeling their frustration into the cacophony of contemporary political dialogue. As time progresses and with each new act of the federal behemoth, the seeds of America’s demise take root and begin to sprout.

Simply put, America has become too unwieldy to be effectively governed by the few hundred elected federal officials and their tax-guzzling bureaucrat minions. More to the point, America shouldn’t be governed by such a body, nor was it ever intended to be. But political idealism aside, today’s reality presents a startling picture of governance stretched thin and entrusted to incompetents—imagine a few rambunctious teenagers freewheeling at a demolition site with a crane and wrecking ball, and there you have government in a nutshell.

Of course, the sheer size of the country is not to blame for its inefficiency, nor is the ignorance and idiocy of those who win elections; based on proper principles and governed by just and wise individuals, neither the population nor the geography would make much difference. Deviation from the nation’s traditional values, however, has created a diversity so divisive that no “mixing pot” elementary school analogy can adequately gloss it over. Take any political hot topic—gay marriage, abortion, federal bailouts, health care, religion’s role in government, etc.—and you have a perfect illustration of the wide and contentious spectrum that exists in America.

While some may cherish this range of ideas, it is not without its destructive tendencies. To understand why, it is important to note the difference between a nation and a state. A nation is a group of people united by some common culture, set of values, or world view. On the other hand, a state (loosely defined, generally meaning any government) is a group of people joined together by geography. While individuals in a nation may have differing opinions and ideas, they have a common foundation upon which to find understanding and mutual trust. They can, of course, form a government (create a “state”) to secure their mutual interests—but their citizenship in the state is not what defines them. Those who simply share a government have few things in common other than their identity as citizens, which does little to help bridge the gap when confronted with a heated subject of governance.

While a common heritage and set of beliefs was once enjoyed by the majority of Americans, today’s society presents a different scenario. Looking over a set of geographical points within the nation’s boundaries—New York, San Francisco, Texas, Louisiana, Detroit, etc.—it becomes apparent that people largely cluster together with others who are like-minded and share a good portion of their values. As just one example, while many citizens of San Francisco may agree with each other on gay marriage, their common values stand at odds with those shared by people living in Provo, Utah.

The destructive aspect of this regional disparity comes into play when we are required to govern such a diverse body of unique groups of communities at a federal level. As in recent decades the federal government has found it necessary to intervene in, regulate, and control the lives of each American, it then follows that each elected individual tries to implement what’s best for them and their community at the expense of other countrymen who live elsewhere and believe differently. While a Constitutionally-sound federal government would have little to do with domestic affairs (and thus each state would be able to govern itself as it pleased), today’s degenerated District of Columbia aims to oversee the vastly heterogeneous lifestyles of hundreds of millions of individuals. This overreaching arrogance is the fertilizer nourishing the seeds of demise spoken of earlier.

Another issue at play is the dilution of representation which weakens our hollow shell of a Republic with each new baby’s birth. The first amendment in the original Bill of Rights would have, if passed, instituted proportional representation for a growing population. Instead, Congress having capped the number of Representatives in the House in 1913, each Representative currently has an average of nearly 700,000 constituents. Such an astronomical number clearly explains why nearly 75% of Americans thinks that Congress is out of touch with their concerns and problems.

So, what are we to do? Can we realistically reign in the leviathan monstrosity that the federal government has become, or should other options be considered? Given the various nations (city/states, as Aristotle called them) that exist within America’s geographical boundaries, it might be time to consider the peaceful secession of autonomous states—devolution, as this author calls it:

Picture an America that is run not, as now, by a top-heavy Washington autocracy but, in freewheeling style, by an assemblage of largely autonomous regional republics reflecting the eclectic economic and cultural character of the society.

Devolved America is a vision faithful both to certain postindustrial realities as well as to the pluralistic heart of the American political tradition—a tradition that has been betrayed by the creeping centralization of power in Washington over the decades but may yet reassert itself as an animating spirit for the future. Consider this proposition: America of the 21st century, propelled by currents of modernity that tend to favor the little over the big, may trace a long circle back to the original small-government ideas of the American experiment. The present-day American Goliath may turn out to be a freak of a waning age of politics and economics as conducted on a super-sized scale—too large to make any rational sense in an emerging age of personal empowerment that harks back to the era of the yeoman farmer of America’s early days. The society may find blessed new life, as paradoxical as this may sound, in a return to a smaller form.

Whether states secede outright from the federal government, work towards some type of (better) implemented federalism, or pursue some other radical change, America’s future is becoming fairly certain. Infected by the “hubris of inordinate size,” as historian George Kennan wrote, the federal government has been fueling the fire of its own cremation with each new action. While new life would surely rise from the ashes, it’s far better to salvage what parts you can before the body becomes toast.

America is not too big to fail. Rather, on her present course she will fail because she is too big. Our political survival depends on our ability to quickly, peacefully, and fully return sovereignty and domestic governance back to where it has always belonged—the people.

13 Responses to “The United States of America: Too Big, To Fail”

  1. Kelly W.
    June 16, 2009 at 8:59 am #

    Nation…… State…….. Region……. Heck! We’re an empire now!

    And empires do fail.

  2. Jason
    June 16, 2009 at 9:11 am #

    It’s been a while since I’ve stopped by, but this is a topic that I’ve been thinking about for some time. However, I haven’t settled on an “answer” as of yet. One thing is for sure, the political machine moves in one direction only, though at different speeds at different times. There is no reverse gear, not through the current established political machinations anyway.

    Unfortunately the only way that revolutionary acts occur are through revolutionary means. I am not advocating nor condoning any kind of violent uprising, but my point is that we are not going to simply “evolve” into a better structure, something big has to happen to drive that change. By big I mean, disruptive to the status quo and the day to day operations and expectations affecting the majority of the population. Something like the current financial meltdown and the Federal Government’s poor attempt to stave it off combined with things going on internationally have that potential.

    And so now I return to the theme of the post, “Too big to fail.” One way I interpret that rhetoric is that if these institutions that are “too big to fail” do in fact fail, then the status quo will be disrupted. It certainly won’t be pretty or fun, but sooner or later it may prove inevitable due to well-meaning leaders trying to hold back a tidal wave of personal and corporate greed and lack of planning for the future.

    “May you live in interesting times” doesn’t imply that they will be fun and exciting, just interesting.

  3. Connor
    June 16, 2009 at 9:14 am #

    Thanks for stopping by, Jason.

    Just one minor thing:

    And so now I return to the theme of the post, “Too big to fail.”

    The title of this post is actually a slight play on the “too big to fail” mantra. You’ll notice I inserted a comma, thus implying that America is both too big and will (unless something changes) fail.

    “May you live in interesting times” doesn’t imply that they will be fun and exciting, just interesting.

    Indeed.

  4. Jeremy Nicoll
    June 16, 2009 at 9:20 am #

    I’ve been thinking the past week on why I’ve been a part of certain institutions and realized that I am not a part of an institution simply for the sake of the institution but because that institution embodies ideals in which I believe. When the institution no longer embodies enough of these ideals, I no longer have any reason to be a part of it. Seems like many are protecting our current institution of government simply because it’s “the institution” and “that’s the way things are done” rather than “this is a good way of doing things.”

    The meaning of the post title is rather subtle: “Too Big, To Fail” means that the centralized government is too big and it will fail. Heck, it’s failing already. Once these morons get their centralized health care in place, it will take a horribly broken system (largely because of existing governmental regulation) and make it completely unusable. I count it as a long term good thing: things will get so bad that many will have to find a real solution rather than limping along with what we have now. Sometimes things have to get much worse before they will get better.

    (edit: Looks like Conner got to the meaning of the title as I was typing my comment.)

  5. June 16, 2009 at 8:50 pm #

    Connor,

    I’ve been wondering lately about the number of people per representative. I had thought about the chaos that would have ensued if we had approximately 10,000 representatives in the House (if we were still working with the 30,000 citizens rule). Where would they even meet?

    Even if the logistics of meeting was provided for, you’d still have the virtually impossible listening to each representative’s point of view on each topic.

    The only way to save such a thing would be to give up more power from the Federal government (and thus responsibility) to the States. The States then having more power from federal would have to give up more power to the local governments.

    Any other idea I came up with would lead to either dissolution, or monarchy. Since we haven’t dissolved, nor have states started to secede (yet) I certainly see lots of evidence that we’ve been moving towards a monarchy.

  6. Neal Davis
    June 17, 2009 at 5:05 am #

    Some time ago, after re-reading the founding documents of our country, it occurred to me that what we have isn’t in line with the vision of the original drafters of the Constitution because they never envisioned a country this large. There’s an enormous difference (even with enhanced communication) between a country the size of the Atlantic seaboard and the 48 lower states, and the government that was founded may not have been adequate to the governance of the latter. On a related note, the section “Bag the states” of this article makes some good points against the state system as it now stands: “[State boundaries are] historical accidents that almost never make any sociopolitical sense; and they’re just the wrong size for modern governance: too big to offer any real sense of local control, too small to serve as an effective counterweight to either the federal government or big business.”

  7. Daniel
    June 17, 2009 at 7:00 am #

    I keep thinking of how the federal government strong-armed the southern states on the segregation issue during the civil rights struggle. (Which, according to Benson, was fomented by Bolsheviks — ol’ Uncle Ezra, what a kidder.)

    Should the states have been left to themselves to do things in their own sweet time? I’d say a strong federal government can be an agent for positive change.

  8. June 17, 2009 at 12:17 pm #

    Yes, Daniel, a strong government at any level can be a wonderful agent for positive change.

    I once related to a conservative friend of mine, the concern I had with government getting bigger and more socialistic. He asked me the question,”What’s the difference between a Capitalist Republic run by corrupt politicians and a Socialist Republic run by corrupt politicians?”

    I didn’t have an immediate answer for that. It was obvious that if those in power are corrupt, it doesn’t matter what system you have,

    Then it occurred to me that he was asking the wrong question. The more enlightening question is,”What is the difference between a Capitalist Republic run by GOOD men and a Socialist Republic run by GOOD men?”

    There are two differences:

    1) Power corrupts. ’nuff said.
    2) Capitalism is a mechanism that works. You just need to keep rules in place that keeps people honest. That is the key to capitalism — honesty. Socialism by nature degrades the bigger it gets. No one has the know how to regulate huge economies in an efficient manner. It is better to let market forces work.

    Commentary:

    Honesty is more than telling the truth or living up to contracts. It is an attitude of making sure everyone knows what is going on. It is an attitude of fair play. But it does not mean anyone gets a free ride (rich OR poor).

    If everything were completely known with the right perspective, I believe 100 unbiased, common sense individuals would overwhelmingly come to the same conclusions.

    If allowed to run freely and honestly, companies that get too large would eventually get so inefficient that they would fail on their own. The primary reason big companies survive little ones is because large companies get lots of breaks not available to little companies.

    You want to get rid of big business? You don’t need to give an unfair advantage to the little guy. Just even the playing field.

    Back to the topic at hand: If a country gets too big, it is time for it to fail. But if there are atificial mechanisms in place to prop it up, it can stay long past its natural expiration date. And it will not be pleasant.

  9. Connor
    June 17, 2009 at 2:08 pm #

    Daniel,

    I’d say a strong federal government can be an agent for positive change.

    You can’t isolate actions and extrapolate the net effect of something. Pretty much anything predominantly evil or destructive can have “positive change”. It’s like saying that the war in Iraq is a good thing because some military engineers have developed a better electricity infrastructure in some Iraqi towns. Ignoring all the other bad stuff to simply focus on one small ray of “positive change” is dangerous.

  10. Daniel
    June 19, 2009 at 12:06 am #

    And have you considered the destructive effect of reflexive anti-federalism? Or the possible consequences of breaking the USA up into autonomous and competing nation-states?

    Look, I get that you’re in favour of keeping power in the hands of states. But the argument in this post is kind of strange. At what point does a country become too big to manage with a strong federal government? Have you done the math on this? Show your work. Otherwise, your size limit seems very arbitrary indeed. Will we see people arguing that their state is too big to reflect their interests, and the subsequent rise of “cities’ rights”?

    I’m not concerned about that though. I’m naïve enough to think that American principles are strong and flexible enough to govern absolutely all Americans. And key among those principles are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So in your example:

    As just one example, while many citizens of San Francisco may agree with each other on gay marriage, their common values stand at odds with those shared by people living in Provo, Utah.

    then the people of Provo, Utah will just have to live their own lives and not try to direct the lives of people living in San Francisco. Or, indeed, gay people in Provo, Utah. You don’t allow people to vote away the rights of a minority. More liberty, not less, even if restricting liberty is popular with some people.

  11. June 19, 2009 at 7:28 am #

    Actually, Daniel, I’m envisioning something very similar to what you ridicule “city’s rights”. I base this on the simple principle that the broader the geographic area, the more generic the laws and authority ought to be.

    You take New York City that is broken up into boroughs. That is because the city has so many citizens that even the city government is somewhat detached from the voice of the people. So in this megalopolis, there should even be some “borough rights”.

    The point is that people need to have a voice. Whatever mechanism is in place to give the people a voice, then the governing body with such mechanism should have power to effect individuals to a somewhat equal degree to which the individual has power to effect the government.

    When the individual is one voice in 700k. And that representative is only one voice in hundreds. Additionally, the methods employed by the political parties today tend to decrease the actual voice people have in the voting booth.

    Thus the individual doesn’t have much power to influence government. So, the government shouldn’t have such power to influence the individual. The role at that point is only to protect the country from foreign invaders and protect the rights of individuals from the abuse from other governmental bodies.

    The lower levels of government will have analagous duties until you get down to a level where the individual has enough of a voice to work WITH government to make policies that make sense for all in that jurisdiction.

    You implied Prop 8 as a contradiction. While we work towards the above ideal, we don’t live in that now. So, we have to fight a two front war. Sometimes this seems contradictory. But it is really the practical response to fighting a two front war.

    For instance, the ideal would be for government to stay out of marriage entirely. But it is already meddling with marriage. So while we work for government to get out of marriage, we also have to fight the battle against government corrupting the idea of traditional marriage.

    I don’t care if some gay couple wants to call themselves “married”. The reason why this is an issue at all is that government meddles with marriage. Individuals can’t really corrupt traditional marriage (at least it would take a lot of individuals). Government can corrupt it with the opinions of a very few.

  12. Daniel
    June 20, 2009 at 6:03 am #

    Borough rights are fine; city government is important. My point is that if you think the USA is too big for a workable federal government, well, why would the state level be any better? States are pretty big, too! Connor is defining some arbitrary level of size as ‘too big’, and — what do you know — it corresponds to a federal level of government. Quelle surprise.

    But the really odd thing about this post is Connor’s discussion of open questions in the national discourse. What one person calls ‘contentious’, someone else might call ‘vigourous’. Politics is the domain of un-agreed-upon questions. But to Connor, the fact that we have an ongoing national debate at all is evidence that it’s time to bust up the Union! Because of course you can’t have a country unless everyone agrees on everything, just like in the old days. What a weird thing to say, what a strange view of history, and really what a telling indicator of the hostility that authoritarians feel toward people whose actions they can’t control.

  13. Connor
    June 20, 2009 at 5:11 pm #

    My point is that if you think the USA is too big for a workable federal government, well, why would the state level be any better? States are pretty big, too!

    I am not tied to the arbitrary boundaries which now define the states. In fact, there are several states that would function much better if broken up into smaller chunks—California being at the top of the list.

    What one person calls ‘contentious’, someone else might call ‘vigourous’. Politics is the domain of un-agreed-upon questions. But to Connor, the fact that we have an ongoing national debate at all is evidence that it’s time to bust up the Union!

    Vigorous debate is perfectly fine, so long as both parties are willing to find middle ground and come to a consensus. There are certain topics being pushed at the federal level, though, that are political dealbreakers for many people, including myself. There are some moral issues that people do not want to capitulate on, and if left to communities/states, it would be far easier to shape public policy according to the general consensus of those choosing to live near one another.

    Because of course you can’t have a country unless everyone agrees on everything, just like in the old days.

    This is a mischaracterization of my argument. I am not arguing for some Utopian state sans diversity. Rather, I am arguing for moving the creation and enforcement of domestic policy to where the people themselves can have an influential say. Individual influence and federal government are hardly synonymous.

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