In Prospect

Spring 2006

The political genius of the Founders was to establish a government to protect citizens from foreign enemies and from the vices and ambitions of their fellow citizens, while also recognizing the need to limit that government, so that those same vices and ambitions in its officials could not turn it into an instrument of tyranny. Most articles in this issue explore that duality, shedding light on a paradox the Founders so nicely balanced.

Mark Steyn’s “Facing Down Iran” presents a new variation on what the Founders saw as government’s first duty. When a country attacks us, we know we must defend ourselves—or at least usually we know: Jimmy Carter did nothing for the 444 days that Iran held U.S. hostages in our Tehran embassy. Doubtless that dithering persuaded Iran that we would always meet aggression with cowardice; and now, as we face Iran’s nuclear threat, do we wait for the mullahs to carry it out, as Steyn predicts they will, or do we act preemptively? European governments may shirk their chief task, but, Steyn says, it’s time for Washington to do the job.

As for the domestic oppression that worried the Founders, they had in mind something like what Steven Malanga describes, in “The Mob That Whacked Jersey.” In the name of uplifting the poor in New Jersey’s failed cities, corrupt  politicians, uncontrolled by checks and balances, have piled taxes onto suburban commuters who moved to the state to escape Gotham’s high levies, shoveling the money to pols in places like Newark and Camden. There it has done no measurable good to the poor but only to the pols and their union backers. No wonder suburbanites are leaving.

Also born out of the Great Society’s crusade to rescue the poor, Medicaid has become another engine of corruption that would appall the Founders, as Malanga reports, with fraud accounting for up to $30 billion of the program’s $300 billion cost. Cheats get away with it because pols don’t want to look too closely into a money machine that enriches political supporters like health-care unions and hospitals.

Even when corruption’s not the problem, government overreaching beyond the limits the Founders envisioned does damage. For generations, the well-intentioned welfare system lured poor women to become trapped in the underclass. Limiting that system in 1996, Kay Hymowitz notes, sent over half those women to work and greatly shrank the extent of underclass neighborhoods—a huge public policy success. So, too, as David Schoenbrod shows in “Toxic Regulation”, even sensible regulations, such as FDA rules to protect health, exceed proper limits when they mandate not just ends but also means. The result has been to shrink the scope of innovative entrepreneurship, in favor of corporate giants with lawyers and lobbyists to deal with the regulators. In a different way, Philip Howard argues in “Making Civil Justice Sane”, government has let individuals wield the power of the state against other individuals or firms way beyond proper limits through liability lawsuits, harming society as a whole. It’s time, he says, for legislatures to direct judges to rein them in.

And how does government fulfill its primary mandate of protecting citizens on the streets and in their homes? Houston, which has taken in and housed 175,000 evacuees from hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, is finding that its guests, coming from a dysfunctional city with a broken criminal-justice system, are shooting up their new neighborhoods, as Nicole Gelinas details in “Houston’s Noble Experiment”. Houston officials, mindful of their key function, are policing, trying, and jailing as they ought, to the shock of evacuee thugs—and perhaps their enlightenment. These and other exercises of proper government power, by contrast with New Orleans’s failure, are making for a fascinating experiment in how much good government can uplift a population that bad government has helped to abase.

Finally, don’t miss Theodore Dalrymple’s “It’s This Bad”. In a decadent England that has swiftly unraveled a thousand-year-old culture, youths can ruin respectable citizens’ lives with impunity, while police enforce political correctness instead of their first duty. The Founders, in Enlightenment heaven, must be doubly glad they made the break.