A reminder of the caution with which the U.S. must proceed in its admirable efforts to advance the cause of liberty and freedom in the world. The first in a series of special American Spectator essays.
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But parliamentary systems do no better. England gave us home-grown fascism in the person of Oswald Mosley; France expressed its anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair; and today much of Europe is in the grip of deep tensions between Muslims whom it will not assimilate and native Europeans who want Muslim labor but not Muslim rights. America, by contrast, has managed to absorb every immigrant group in ways that enrich the country and convert most new arrivals into patriots. We have several million Muslims living here, but I suspect that the proportion who embrace the radical fascism of Muslim extremists is smaller here than abroad.
Federalism keeps government close to the people, especially with respect to issues that mean a lot to them. The police, the schools, criminal justice, and land-use planning are deeply local matters. As a result, we have more variation in the policies of these agencies than one would find in a centralized democracy. As school quality becomes a problem, some states allow the creation of charter schools and a few places accept voucher programs. Land use planning can be either greatly restrictive or open to new developments, depending on the policies of cities and counties.
Federalism, of course, has costs as well as benefits. Southern states practiced racial discrimination after most Northern ones had passed laws against it. Locally elected school boards can often be captured by the electoral power of teachers’ unions, thus creating a dubious bargaining arrangement: school boards that are supposed to negotiate with teachers over salaries and working conditions often are the captive of the very teachers with whom they must do business.
But the benefits are just as clear. When welfare reform began at the national level, it built on new ideas being tried in several states. When limits on aggressive medical malpractice suits began, they came first in states and are only now being considered in Washington. These changes confirm the argument by Justice Louis Brandeis that federalism is valuable because it creates “laboratories of democracy.” He was explaining why much good comes from political alternatives. Not only can government choose what to do, people can choose among states where it is done. People who want medical marijuana, tough environmental laws, lenient criminal justice penalties, and alternative life-styles can live in one place; people who prefer the opposites of these can live elsewhere.
By keeping certain policies close to the people, government here cannot long ignore popular demands. Consider crime. When our crime rates began to rise in the early 1960s, Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate in 1964, campaigned about “crime in the streets.” Many of his opponents berated him, claiming, wrongly, that his concern was a mask for a hostility to racial minorities. But Lyndon Johnson, who defeated Goldwater, knew better. Since people were worried about crime, he created a National Commission on Crime and the Administration of Justice that issued a multi-volume report.
But far more important than a national commission is the fact that every district attorney, every mayor, every governor, and many judges are elected by the people. When crime became a public concern, these officials had to respond. By the early 1980s, that response had led to a higher proportion of convicted criminals going to prison where they served longer sentences. In Europe, by contrast, crime rates also rose but this fact was confronted by political elites who were insulated from public concern.
The difference can be seen in the contrast between America and England. In the 1970s, England had lower robbery and burglary rates than did California, probably because the former sent a higher proportion of robbers to prison than did the latter. But by the mid-1980s, the criminal justice policies of the two countries had switched places. America, driven by popular pressure, increased the proportion of convicted offenders sent to prison while England reduced that proportion. Crime rates fell in America and rose in England. By the early 1990s, England had a robbery rate higher than America’s and a burglary rate that was twice as high as ours. We cannot be certain that differing punishment policies explain the changes in crime rates, but no other plausible explanation is available.
During many of these changes, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States and Margaret Thatcher the prime minister of England. I doubt they disagreed about crime or how to deal with it. What is important is not that they were in office but that in this country scores of elected prosecutors endorsed popular new policies while in England scores of appointed prosecutors did not.
When public officials are appointed, they acquire a certain detachment from public opinion, thereby enabling them to act on the basis of their personal beliefs. Those beliefs, in my experience, consist of some combination of self-interest and a therapeutic ideology. The self-interest of British civil servants has been memorably recorded in Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, two BBC television series that I believe are not only hilarious but accurate. It would be almost impossible to make such a program about American civil servants, not because they care less for their own advantage but because they are checked by competing elected officials in legislative committees who are highly sensitive to what the public wants.
These differences are dramatized by differing American and English policies toward the death penalty. In both countries a majority of the people support it, but only in America does it exist. And it exists in most states but not all. In England, parliamentary leaders do not propose the idea for enactment even though people want it.
As with the choices offered by federalism, so also with its easy transmission of public opinion: the right decision is not always made. In some states, the public can back unconstitutional or morally dubious arguments. The courts will ordinarily prevent the former from taking effect, but nothing will prevent the latter. But human choice makes a difference: if a state makes a series of popular but questionable choices, people can move to a different state. Moreover, the states must compete with one another for business. A firm wishing to build a factory or an office building will examine not only land costs but tax rates and political attitudes, picking the state that offers the best deal. This competition imposes a powerful brake on ill-considered schemes.
Tocqueville ascribed our political culture in large part to our religious heritage. Our settlers who escaped religious persecution at home brought with them a form of Christian worship that that was both “democratic and republican.” To be sure, some Americans in 1835 and many more today “profess Christian dogma…because they are afraid of not looking like they believe them.” But for most people, religion is a reality, not a dodge. Tocqueville understood that, contrary to the prediction of European philosophers, freedom and enlightenment would not extinguish religious zeal. On the contrary: here freedom largely explains our persistent religiosity.
That is because a nation that never had an established church and did not grant money or privileges to existing churches left religion in the hands of spiritual entrepreneurs. These people were sometimes domestic missionaries and sometimes local citizens eager to create and govern a religious organization. Protestant churches had to compete in a spiritual marketplace, with many new churches emerging every year, people changing their affiliations frequently, and a few mega-churches emerging under the guidance of the most successful ministers. The system of natural liberty that Adam Smith said would benefit the economy has also aided religion.
As a result, nearly half of all Americans attend churches or synagogues weekly compared to 4 percent of the English, 5 percent of the French, and comparably low levels in most of Western Europe. Some may suspect that our religiosity is sustained by recent immigrants, especially those from Latin America. But that is only part of the story. Churches grew in membership between 1776 and 1850, long before Irish and Italian immigrants arrived in any number. When German immigrants arrived toward the end of the nineteenth century, they behaved like Germans still in their homeland: most were nonobservant Lutherans. But by the time they had become third generation Americans, they acquired the church commitments of America generally and went to church frequently. And the Mormon church has grown rapidly without, at least in America, emphasizing immigrant recruitment.
In most of Europe, by contrast, religion was allied with politics so that over the centuries European secularists, as one scholar has noted, “hounded Christians as political enemies rather than as religious adversaries.” As a result, European churches which are still under government influence in much of Europe long after these nations had become secular, creates a political failure: as Tocqueville put it, “religion increases its power over some and loses the hope of reigning over all.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?