- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

“Pundits are urging that President Bush use his upcoming State of the Union address to launch powerful new ideas.” That is needed, but Mr. Bush should not allow himself to be maneuvered into proposing new federal spending programs.

Our government already does more things (almost all badly), wastes more money (more than $200 billion annually) and, in secular terms, has more influence in more ways on more people than any institution in the world.

Instead of making government bigger, President Bush should rally the American people behind two big ideas that will reshape America’s future around personal liberty and free enterprise.

The first big idea is to refocus government’s attention and resources on what it can and must do well.

Americans expect government will competently and unstintingly guard the nation from attack, secure the borders, protect public health, control crime, assure a stable financial system, pursue fiscal policies conducive to economic growth and, when all else fails, succor the poor and victims of disaster.

The second big idea is to restore to the people the liberties they have already lost to the ever-bigger and more intrusive government we have today.

Government has done much that is good — but, as Thomas Jefferson foresaw and feared at the Founding, this ever-growing titan has also eroded our individual liberties. Many Americans now are more like dependent subjects than free citizens in charge of their own affairs. And if government continues on its present course, all our liberties will be at risk.

In America today, liberty is under attack by courts that make, rather than interpret, laws — and by prosecutors who conduct inquisitions instead of trials, willfully destroying the lives and reputations of their victims, despite failure to prove any crime was committed. Like Madame Defarge, they knit all kinds of accusations, and off you go to the guillotine of public disgrace.

Property is no longer private — not even our homes, which may now be taken from us and sold to others when it suits government’s “public purpose.” Religion and religious practices, especially those of Evangelical Christians, are increasingly either prohibited or regulated by government.

It is almost impossible to do anything without permission from one or more organs of government and complying with their often-conflicting dictates. Fines and penalties abound for crimes unimagined by our forebears — often involving thought, speech or opinion more than overt action.

Even when the vast body of federal law was much smaller and less intrusive, Robert Jackson (later a Supreme Court justice) had already identified the growing threat to liberty: “With the law books filled with a great assortment of crimes, a prosecutor stands a fair chance of finding at least a technical violation of some act on the part of almost anyone.”

Today — when each of us is almost certainly in violation of at least a few of government’s many edicts — the only real question is who will be selected for prosecution. The risk of selection is higher for prominent or controversial citizens. And political disputes are likelier to be criminalized than at any time since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

In 1941, in a nation still suffering the effects of the Great Depression and near its involvement in World War II, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed for all people everywhere the Four Freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear — and combined all the nation’s resources into a single victorious armada. Thereafter, several generations of politicians thought this “big unit” approach (as Michael Barone calls it) was the universal solution. And big government grew apace.

The then-prevailing political majority thought it could promote freedom and justice by spending more money and passing more laws to specify in detail exactly what Americans must and must not do. But they were wrong.

History, our own recent experience and the principles on which the nation was founded all teach us big government is the enemy, not the guardian of liberty.

Big government is also wasteful, inefficient, often not very smart and often unreliable. Witness the failures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the long litany of less notorious inanities millions of times daily throughout the massive governmental apparatus — federal, state and local — with which Americans today are afflicted.

Competitive globalization pressures forced business enterprises to abandon the clumsy, highly bureaucratic “big unit” mold in which they had been stuck since the 1950s. Successful businesses are today more agile, smarter and efficient.

President Bush should lead the American people in demanding all members of Congress stop fighting among themselves long enough to transform our present pork-laden monstrosity of a government into a lean and efficient machine that quietly serves the American people faster, better and cheaper.

Ernest S. Christian is a Washington lawyer and former Treasury official.

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