Have we lost the capacity for self-government? Looking at the "fiscal cliff" and other crises, you would think so. Hard decisions get kicked down the road. The problems are clear, yet government seems unwilling and incapable of solving them. So they continue to plague us no matter who we put in charge. It's as if "we the people" have lost control.
The examples are legion.
The federal government no longer operates with a budget, something Congress is required to pass each year. Instead we lurch from one fiscal crisis to the next, living off budget extensions that are driving the country into bankruptcy. The defining feature of self-government — the capacity, in fact, the right, to choose — is lost because the end result is the same. It seems as though the political system itself, designed to manage the spoils of government, prevents such choices for fear they will destroy it.
The problem is not just the paralysis of government, but its overreach. President Obama often operates outside the law. He's taken an oath to uphold the Constitution and enforce our laws, not to disregard them or make them up. Yet he chooses not to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act or federal marijuana laws. And he enacts by executive order what he could not get in the Dream Act.
Then there are the courts, which routinely overthrow laws passed by democratic state legislatures, such as when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overthrew a California referendum rejecting gay marriage.
So what happens to the people's right to choose when courts citing some new interpretation of "rights" reject their democratic choices? Or when a president refuses to enforce laws passed by a democratic Congress? Or when government steadfastly refuses to stop the country from heading into bankruptcy?
Not only is self-government lost, but democracy is weakened. When the government becomes mainly a political mechanism for distributing benefits — adjudicated by periodic power struggles called elections — it is no longer an instrument for self-government. Instead it is a tool for state rule. People may choose their president and representatives, but they are not actually choosing the shape, form or size of government and how it is run.
Once the people become dependent on this system, it is exceedingly difficult to change. They are as dependent on it as the politicians are. The country is paralyzed not only because Americans are politically divided. They are as entrapped as the politicians by the system itself. Even Americans who want nothing whatsoever to do with it have no place to go. The government touches every aspect of their lives, and even those who claim not to want government benefits accept them anyway.
The American system worked well when presidents and courts respected the limits of their power. Checks and balances kept the inherent power conflicts of democracy from spiraling out of control. But when those checks and balances go, all bets are off. Everything becomes a battle for the levers of power. Even the rule of law is corrupted as laws become power grabs and battles ensue over whose laws get enforced.
Thomas Jefferson captured the problem in a letter to Spencer Roane in 1819. "It should be remembered as an axiom of eternal truth in politics," he said, "that whatever power in any government is independent, is absolute also; in theory only, at first, while the spirit of the people is up, but in practice as fast as that relaxes."
It's not as if the "independent" power of the government we have created has no legitimacy. After all, we gave up that power to government over many elections.
But that doesn't mean we have abdicated our sovereign right to self-rule. That right is eternal and separate from government. We could get it back the same way we gave it up — namely, through democratic elections. But that will require some soul searching about what self-government really means.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.