Mark Franke: Is this the government we deserve?

“You get the government you deserve.” — Thomas Jefferson

I don’t have a Ph.D. in political science, but one is hardly needed to realize something is seriously wrong with the current state of our government.

It isn’t that the president commits oral gaffe after gaffe or that the House Republicans resolved to play family feud in public. These are only symptoms, a list which is too long to enumerate here, but they are warning signs we have ignored for too long. Since we take a perverse enjoyment from rehearsing the wrongs, have we made a serious attempt to determine what the root problem is?

As a classical liberal with profound respect for the ideals of our Constitution and their expression in the actual text, my considered opinion is to point to the near-total disregard by our ruling class for the government that venerable document created.

Consider each of the branches in turn. Congress can certainly spend money, but does it actually legislate as Article I demands? How often is the legislative function delegated or disingenuously defaulted to executive agencies? Why does Congress spend so much time investigating and so little on everything else other than loading spending bills with earmarks?

Article II states the president is to enforce the law, being held individually responsible for that. Does he? Can he? The term “deep state” explains things sinisterly well as federal agencies seem to act autonomously, a word taken from the Greek idea of being a law unto oneself. Donald Trump called it a swamp and promised to drain it. It’s still there.

The courts have usurped the power to make law rather than interpreting it. No wonder they are criticized from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Calling the Supreme Court activist doesn’t mean it actively examines legislation for its adherence to the Constitution as George Will would have it. Rather, it has come to mean actively searching for opportunities to expand the law into areas the legislature feared to tread.

So back to Congress. If both the executive branch agencies and the courts make law, what is it that Congress does other than spend money that the government doesn’t have?

I know I live in the past, but that is where I find reasonable explanations for today’s questions. I take counsel from the great philosophers of the past and often end up with Plato. His “Republic” has aged well over the past 2,500 years. How could he so accurately describe our society unless human nature hasn’t changed?

Plato’s cave looks to me like the American polity. We citizens, prisoners in Plato’s terminology, sit in the dark watching shadows being projected to us after careful filtering by the imagemakers. If we try to turn away from these force-fed images and past the imagemakers, the sunlight of reality hurts our eyes and we scurry back to what we perceive as safety. That’s what Plato wrote then and what we still do today.

How many of us are willing to read several insightful essays on an issue and then spend the time necessary to understand and decide? Or would we rather just regurgitate the 30-second soundbites from our preferred cable news station? These are the modern manifestations of the shadows on Plato’s cave wall. We are prisoners of our own prejudices, constantly seeking self-validation.

We all take refuge in these prejudices, supported too often by our own intellectual sloth. Serious thinking is hard work as is training one’s mind to foster a state of contemplation. No wonder we opt for the easy path. And no wonder our politicians have learned how to encourage us down that path. Jefferson had it right.

I am not a fan of the nominalist philosophy of William of Ockham, but I do credit him with providing me the most important tool on my philosophical workbench. His principle of parsimony, better known as Occam’s Razor, should be kept to hand whenever someone wants to seriously think things through.

Simplifying things is not as simple as it sounds but it can be done if one keeps focused on what is truly essential to the situation. The opposite approach is paralysis by analysis. Why overthink things when the obvious answer is hidden by extraneous solutions often dictated by our own conceits?

Consider this example from Dickens’ “David Copperfield.” When the young and ragged runaway David shows up at his persnickety Aunt Betsey’s house unannounced and pursued by his despotic stepfather, she becomes flustered and unable to decide what to do. Her boarder Mr. Dick, portrayed as simple-minded, responds, “Have him measured for a suit of clothes directly.” Brilliant. David stays; the mean stepfather is shown the door.

Does this label me as simple-minded? I hope so. And if that is what it takes to escape the cave prison of the image-makers, I am content with that.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected]