This column by ACRU Senior Fellow Robert Knight was published June 22, 2012 on The Washington Times website.
WALNUT CREEK, OHIO
Out here in Amish country, an island of tranquillity amid America’s frenetic culture, news of the titanic power struggle over Obamacare in Washington seeps in like unwanted flotsam. You catch glimpses of it when tourists check their iPhones or you overhear people talking about it over their shoofly pie and coffee.
The U.S. Supreme Court is about to rule on the law’s constitutionality, and it’s more important than it should be. That’s because Americans already have ceded far too much power to government at all levels.
Think about it. A nation of more than 310 million people is waiting with bated breath on nine people in black robes. How did this happen? Well, long ago, America made a deal with the devil. Here’s how it works:
“I’ll give you free rein to engage in any vice you want, from illicit sex to drug abuse,” the devil said. “All you have to do in return is allow government to grow exponentially to run every other aspect of your lives. And I mean every aspect, right down to which light bulbs you can buy and who makes life-and-death medical decisions.”
So, over the past half-century, Americans took the bait. In the name of individual freedom, people who knew better shed the Christian-inspired restraints that allowed civil society to flourish. And government grew.
Activist courts took a wrecking ball to laws that discouraged divorce, bankruptcy, adultery, homosexuality and pornography. Americans also had been softened up for more big government by the Depression and two world wars.
Another big factor was the decline of churches, as Darwinians mistook science for religion, assailed the notion of a Creator and made sure that institutions – especially schools – adopted this view. It was not for nothing that several of the founders said constitutional liberty is possible only for people with a providential worldview that respects human life and fosters personal responsibility.
The perfect storm arrived with the advent of mass media. Television replaced community activities as people became isolated from family and neighbors. Like a cute little bear cub, TV seemed harmless at first, reflecting American values in programs like “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” But the cub soon morphed into a hungry monster that ate everything in sight, making Sheriff Andy Taylor obsolete and transforming Mayberry into a myth. One of the saddest outcomes is that so many young people think TV’s “The Waltons” and other depictions of close families and communities portray an unattainable fantasy or anachronisms like Amish bonnets and buggies.
It used to be that you had to go to the big city to get corrupted. Smut and prostitution were confined to the seedy side of town. But television, videos, movies and the Internet brought smut to even the most isolated hamlets, ensnaring men who grew accustomed to using women rather than cherishing them.
As personal responsibility faded, more people became enchanted by government’s siren song of dependency and entitlement. Do you remember the ponytailed guy who asked the signature question during a televised presidential debate in 1992? He defined the American people as “symbolically the children of the future president” and asked the candidates how they were going to “meet our needs.” He could be the poster child today for Obamacare.
For most of America’s history, the social and political culture cultivated virtue and discouraged vice while affording hitherto unimagined human liberty. But the nation’s flaws – most strikingly, slavery – have become the media and educational narrative, not exceptions to the American dream.
The mystic chords of memory can be revived and strengthened, but it takes conscious effort.
When he was a teenager, our first and greatest president, George Washington, compiled a list of do’s and don’ts that promote manners because, he explained, personal vices have public consequences.
Rule No. 109 in Rules of Civility: “Let your recreations be manful, and not sinful.” Contrast that with remarks that Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts made a couple of years ago to CNSNews.com:
“I would let people gamble on the Internet. I would let adults smoke marijuana; I would let adults do a lot of things, if they choose.” Well, OK. The law is not a nanny, but here’s the devil’s deal again. Personal vice abets government power.
Mr. Frank has worked tirelessly to expand federal power through higher taxes and abominations such as Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial regulations. He has backed efforts to curtail “allowing [persons] total freedom to take on economic obligations that spill over into the broader society,” such as having “a house in a neighborhood – which when they go bankrupt becomes a fire hazard for their neighbors … [because] the impact goes well beyond the individual.” In other words, Mr. Frank wants the government to have even more power over people’s money, jobs and housing because of a lack of personal responsibility.
Mr. Frank is right about that much. Greed and irresponsibility affect others. But so do other vices that don’t seem to bother Mr. Frank, such as sex outside marriage, drug abuse, gambling, divorce, abortion and indolence. They all give government an excuse to grow bigger to pick up the pieces. It’s devilishly effective.
Despite all of this, Americans are not without hope if we return to first principles and heed Washington’s advice about the danger of unbridled impulses: “In all cases of passion, admit reason to govern.”
We must hope and pray that at least five Supreme Court justices employ reason to put a brake on the Obamacare express, which could take America past the point of no return.
Then we need to rebuild America’s culture from the ground up. You don’t have to be Amish to understand that personal responsibility is indispensable to a self-governing society.