D.C.'s fallen into the London-knows-best pattern of thinking
As we approach another Fourth of July, we should take to heart what Samuel Adams said shortly after the Declaration of Independence was read publicly in Philadelphia 223 years ago.
He declared, “We have fled from the political Sodom; let us not look back, lest we perish and become a monument of infamy and derision to the world.”
For Adams, who failed as a brewmaster but triumphed as a journalist, the political Sodom was London, famous for its shopping, plays, brothels, and governmental corruption. (The British wit Samuel Johnson proposed in 1777 that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”)
Colonists who had spent time in London tended to agree with that evaluation, but they gave it a different twist. One early patriot leader, John Dickinson, lived in London for four years and observed its “vicious pressures.” He then returned home to write an influential book, “Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” that contrasted time spent amid London's “busy scenes of life” with time enjoyed amid the simple pleasures of home and farm.
Dickinson and other Americans lacked what some today would call a “sophisticated public theology,” the post-modernist willingness to ignore evil.
Americans thought in terms of right and wrong, and were even willing to turn their backs on Britain's aristocratic, decadent capital city.
The decision to forsake London, the center of worldly power, was a hard one for some Americans. Benjamin Franklin had spent many years in full enjoyment of the capital's attractions, but even he finally came around. A month before the Revolution broke out Franklin sailed home, blasting “the extreme corruption prevalent among all orders” of London officialdom, with “enormous salaries, pensions, perquisites and bribes” making reform very unlikely.
De-Londonizing Americans two centuries ago placed their capital in what was then a wilderness, instead of in a major city. Over time, however, the town named after George Washington displayed some tendency to imitate London. Even in the 1830s British observer Thomas Hamilton noted in his book, “Men and Manners in America,” that Washington had become as fine a place as London to sample “the enjoyments of social intercourse.”
In the 20th century, many Americans began to see Washington as a new London. The Progressive movement shortly after 1900 and the recent “Republican Revolution” had different political aims, but shared a common concern about Washington becoming a political Sodom. Lamar Alexander's one good line about Congress five years ago was, “Cut their pay and send them home.”
Some conservatives, however, are finding it hard to walk away from power. Adultery is found everywhere today, but Washington is the top spot for political adultery. Some congressmen who came to Washington in 1995 committed to decentralization have fallen into the old, London-knows-best pattern of thinking that if they favor a particular human need or desire, they should vote to spend tax money on it.
One result: Despite 4 1/2 years of Republican control of Congress, the federal tax burden has hit 20 percent of the gross domestic product, the highest ever except in wartime. The question is again before us: How can Congress de-Londonize?
One way is to couple votes to spend money with votes on promoting non-governmental ways to spend it. Congress, for example, could vote that Americans provide temporary material help to single moms trying to get off welfare. An immediate second vote could consider the means: Congress could decide between promoting the work of faith-based poverty-fighting organization by offering tax credits, and requiring payment of taxes that would go to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Two other mechanisms might help. Term limits make sense but they do deprive Congress of some useful experience; a better means is the 18th-century practice called “rotation of offices,” whereby a person could alternate serving and sitting out. Also, why not tie spending reductions directly to tax cuts? Cut $10 billion from the federal budget—a real cut, not just a reduction of anticipated increase—and we'd automatically see $10 billion in tax cuts. Cut $100 billion, and $100 billion in tax cuts result.
But effective use of any mechanisms like those depends on changes of heart, not just changes in law and regulations. Washington leaders who say they want to spend more time at home with their families need to act according to those desires, by voting to relinquish some power and return authority to states, communities and individuals.
Olasky is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas and a senior fellow of the Acton Institute.