The founders’ many warnings about standing armies may seem rather quaint in an age of supersonic jets and ICBMs -- or not, when we consider the legions of new bureaucrats about to enlist indefinitely in Obamacare’s army.
Despite the increasing unpopularity of Obamacare and the headlines announcing exploding health insurance premiums in one state after another, the GOP’s smooth operators are counseling conservatives to simply get out of the way. They’re promising to translate the Obamacare “train wreck” into a big 2014 mid-term election victory if the Senate’s “wacko birds” don’t alienate moderate voters by attempting to defund Obamacare. Having been around many a DC block, Republican political professionals suggest, once again, that the prudent fight is just after the next election.
But the Tea Party’s rise and political success suggests that many Americans have had enough of fiddling while Rome burns -- and enough of a Republican establishment that talks about our founding principles but seems more interested in leading the next congressional majority that mocks them. Just in time, too. For while success by reformers in states like Wisconsin, Indiana, and Texas suggests that it is not too late for action, Detroit’s bankruptcy (and Chicago’s looming fiscal catastrophe) shows that the clock is ticking.
Today, Detroit is a war zone--it has the highest violent crime rate of any large city, but the damage runs deeper, the consequence of a half-century of Progressive governance: almost a million “missing” citizens, thousands of abandoned buildings, and the general collapse of community life.
This nightmare ought to discredit the ruling class approach to urban development, centered on a massive system of social welfare programs managed by a large, generously-compensated bureaucracy. Of course, that should have happened already, since the same formula has failed wherever it has been tried. And yet here we are on the eve of implementing our largest entitlement program ever.
Federalist 8 helps to explain why such programs come into existence -- and why the effort to defund Obamacare is worth the fight. Early Anti-Federalist writings repeatedly cited the lack of a bill of rights, worries about a too-powerful national government, and the danger of a (constitutionally-permitted) standing army among their principal objections to the Constitution.
In Federalist 8 Alexander Hamilton turns the concerns about a standing army around. He, too, believes that a large, idle military can become a dangerous tool in the hands of would-be despots, but he argues that we are much more likely to have a standing army if the Constitution is not ratified. This isn’t because the Articles of Confederation was more friendly to standing armies than the Constitution--it wasn’t. And it isn’t because Hamilton assumes the confederacies that might arise with the breakup of the Union would be eager to establish large peacetime militaries -- they wouldn’t.
But as our experience of a century of Progressive government has demonstrated, nations often act beyond constitutional limits and against the intentions of their founders. Thus, Hamilton considers American liberty secure only when it has been protected, as much as may be, against “the natural and necessary progress of human affairs.”
Under what conditions, Hamilton therefore asks, would a dangerous standing army be formed? He answers: whenever the people were worried enough to tolerate one -- a circumstance much more likely to occur in a group of small, rival confederacies than in a single nation united under the Constitution: “The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”
Hamilton’s general point is that people who are scared look to government to deliver them from their fear. This is why the GOP establishment’s calculus is wrong. Obamacare, when implemented, will generate more fear and insecurity, not less. More individuals will find that only part-time work is available, as businesses protect themselves against the employer mandate. More individuals will find that no work at all is available, as business profits mutate into compliance costs. But, the establishment responds, this will make Obamacare and its advocates less popular.
Don’t be so sure.
It won’t, after all, be the president who announces that the deli counter workers at the local grocery store will have their hours cut, as happened recently in a nearby Queens neighborhood. Protests and boycotts certainly did follow: against the store and its owners, not the Obama administration. Corporate greed, rather than government overreach, was the accepted storyline. And if the general dissatisfaction with a bad economy makes its way back to its source in a government entitlement program it will surely be for the first time.
It is much more likely that we will hear about the need to extend unemployment benefits, add to the food stamp rolls, and the like -- and that many people, apparently out of other options, will, here too, “run the risk of being less free.” In other words, one economy-killing, dependency-creating program begets (or expands) another. Or, we might say, big government wins when anyone loses -- and it guarantees that plenty will lose.
The Progressive promise of social and economic renewal, then, ends in bitter irony. The moral equivalent of war turns out to be only the bureaucratic equivalent of war, leaving behind a new standing army quartered, at least metaphorically, in every home--and a plausible pretext for the next battle.
Even if this can’t go on forever, as Detroit at home and Greece abroad amply demonstrate, it is much better to meet this enemy at the frontiers than to suffer their fate. That begins with understanding the sort of security the government can actually provide. The preamble to the Constitution guides us well: “to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity....”
Nothing produces a greater number or variety of blessings than liberty. But they don’t come easy, leaving plenty of room for our native greed, jealousy, and laziness to look for ways to take what we can from our neighbor. Our Constitution was ordained and established to check our worst impulses and to secure to each his own pursuit of happiness. Its framers hoped to ensure that the shortest way to individual and societal happiness would be the virtuous way.
Over the last century, American government has progressively gone beyond this, relieving the burdens of a few and increasing the burdens of many, while in every case tending to its own advantage. Along the way, it has encouraged us to angle for our own free lunch, if only to compensate for the ones we’ve been forced to buy for others.
The effort to defund Obamacare carries with it political risk--and, of course, the votes may not be there in the end. But it is not “nuts,” as even a leading conservative columnist has called it, or mere grandstanding, as many others have suggested. Political prudence teaches us to seek the most viable rightful path to a just end. What does that mean in this context?
1. Don’t wait too long. Obamacare will be two years further entrenched before a new Congress begins and at least four years so before a Republican is even possibly president again. It may never be more unpopular than it is now. Or by the time it is, the American people may be too insecure to turn to anyone but the government for their relief.
2. Don’t mistake quantity for quality. The limited progress we’ve made toward limiting government over the past generation has generally occurred when Republicans didn’t have complete control of the presidency and the Congress--and right now, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul are moving the national political conversation in the right direction like no members of Congress have since the early days of Newt Gingrich’s speakership.
3. Don’t go back on existing obligations. The threat to defund Obamacare cannot mean defaulting on obligations we’ve already taken on. Nothing in Senator Lee’s new defund proposal, which calls for Congress to pass a continuing resolution that “funds all the functions of government except ObamaCare,” suggests this. If President Obama vetoes the bill, Congress should continue to pass similar bills until he is willing to exempt all Americans, not just a chosen few (members of Congress, big business), from this terrible piece of legislation.
Americans should stand with the courageous group of senators attempting to spare them the establishment of the largest, most intrusive standing army yet. Perhaps these efforts might postpone the day, hopefully forever, when every American must say, “I am a Detroiter.”
This essay is part of a series connecting the principles of the Federalist Papers to contemporary politics. For more, visit The Federalist Today website or Facebook page or follow the project on Twitter.