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Copyright © 2000 by J. Neil Schulman. All rights reserved.
As George W. Bush prepares to begin his presidency on January 20th, we are hearing calls that he abandon the Republican Party's conservative base and seek consensus with the Democrats in Congress, in order to convince the American people that he can govern effectively.
Unlike a lot of people, I'm not particularly in favor of continued gridlock in Washington D.C. Gridlock maintains the status quo, a legacy of gargantuan government left to us by four decades of Democrats controlling Congress, of Democratic presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, and of Republican presidents from Richard Nixon to the earlier President George Bush.
Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal gave us Social Security, a pyramid scheme by which young families now have to send both parents out to work in order to fund payments the federal government promised their grandparents. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society gave us three generations of welfare mothers and fatherless children. Richard Nixon gave us affirmative action laws that try to redress past discrimination with new discrimination, and President George Bush the First gave us an Americans with Disabilities Act so politically correct that tall people and fat people are taking advantage of laws meant for the blind, the deaf, and the lame.
Moreover, none of the presidents of this past century managed to get through their terms without some major offense to the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, ranging from the blow to the First Amendment caused by the nationalization of broadcasting frequencies or anti-trust requiring book publishers not to own bookstores, to the war on drugs' destruction of the Fourth Amendment, to attacks on the Second Amendment.
If George W. Bush spent his presidency doing nothing but repealing laws that grew the power of government over the last century, his tenure would be well spent. But even if he were inclined to do so, the political realities are not all that far from what the pundits are saying. The Republican control of Congress is razor thin and there is no overriding party discipline among the Republicans that enables the next President Bush to govern without reaching across the aisle to the Democrats.
So let me take this opportunity to point out to President-Elect Bush a way to reach some consensus between Republicans and Democrats by relying on what I'll call The American Principles.
American Principle #1: Allow for disagreement.
Why is there a political controversy about abortion? The reason is that some people believe a fetus has human rights and some people don't. This is a moral question that depends on several philosophical or theological assumptions. If you believe human beings are just another part of the food chain, abortion, infanticide, or even euthanasia might not be an ethical impediment to utilitarian arguments for population control. If you're of a religious persuasion that we have God-created souls but they don't enter a body until its first breath, then abortion might also not be a moral problem. On the other hand, if your religious beliefs impel the conclusion that we have God-created souls which are present in a fetus during pregnancy, it logically follows that abortion is an act of homicide.
The first American Principle solves this problem nicely by allowing for disagreement based on different moral conclusions. Freedom of religion means being free from other people's religious conclusions. Regardless that you view abortion as murder, you understand that there is no secular consensus on this and leave the punishment for abortion, if any, to God's judgment, not man's.
Another example: prayer in public schools.
I sincerely don't understand how anyone expects public schools not to be a source of never-ending political strife. How can it be otherwise? Parents want their children to be taught the values they themselves hold dearest.
If your Christian values are that God is the source of moral law and Jesus the source of human salvation, you want the Lord's Prayer recited in class each morning, the Ten Commandments on the classroom wall, and an Easter Pageant each spring. If you're Jewish, keep the Ten Commandments but get rid of the Lord's Prayer and the Easter Pageant. If you're an atheist or agnostic, you want the Ten Commandments off the classroom wall as well, replaced by a Surgeon General's warning.
There's never going to be any uniform consensus among all parents about deeply philosophical issues like this and whichever parent loses one of these debates is bound to be angry as spit. The problem is not whether or not we have prayers in public schools; it's that we tax parents for public schools regardless of whether they agree with what happens in the classroom.
The first American Principle demands that we give up trying to make other kids be taught what we want our kids to be taught. Either we outright stop taxing people for public education or we adopt Milton Friedman's compromise of attaching taxpayer-funded tuition to the child rather than to the school, giving parents the choice upon which school to spend it.
(And just by the way, I've never understood why teachers' union officials don't understand that this will drive up the market demand for teachers rather than limiting teachers' wages to whatever bureaucrats decide. The minute after private-school vouchers hit the street, you won't be able to hire a teacher without stock options.)
American Principle #2: Punish people only for the bad things they've already done.
This principle, if applied, cuts a wide swath from gun-control to the war on drugs.
If we are to define a crime as an action which causes harm, how can mere availability of an inanimate thing logically be the basis for a crime? Guns don't aim themselves or pull their own triggers and cocaine doesn't snort itself. Both gun- control laws and drug-control laws assume that people are too stupid or too evil to make good decisions.
Which leads directly to:
American Principle #3: Live and Let Live.
I have access to a wide range of information on pharmaceuticals; there are numerous web sites with as detailed information as I wish and I read very well. Why do I, as a mentally-competent middle-aged adult, have to put up with the government making me get a permission slip from a doctor before I decide for myself that an inflammation in the corner of my eye will get better if I dab some Erythromycin Ophthalmic Ointment on it? Why do other mentally-competent adults deserve to rot in prison if they decide to buy cocaine powder to anesthetize a toothache, relieve chronic back pain with heroin, or smoke marijuana to treat glaucoma? Does the government's need for taxes create a lien on our lives such that we really don't have the right to make a mistake about the medications we use?
Why is a gun owner a criminal if he decides that a forward pistol grip on a rifle will let him aim better at arsonists who decide that the building he lives in would be better if it wasn't there, as happened to over a thousand buildings in Los Angeles during riots just eight years ago? Or if the experience of pie-shop diner Randy Shields, running out of ammunition in a fight for his life against a gang of robbers, convinces another gun owner that he has a better chance of survival with a large-capacity pistol magazine, why does someone else's evaluation of his defensive needs override his own evaluation?
These controversies are not Republican or Democratic; they are the conquest of one man's judgment regarding his own well-being by another man's arrogant presumptions being made law and enforced at the point of the policeman's gun.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans are free from the crimes of arrogance.
While it's true that both Republicans and Democrats think people are too stupid to take the drugs they think they need, fewer Democrats than Republicans want outright prohibitions on casino gambling, to let people roll the dice on their paycheck.
Democrats want public schools to teach politically-correct lessons; Republicans want schools to teach lessons in piety -- but it's mostly Republicans who are willing to let parents make spending decisions for themselves regarding school tuition.
There used to be Democrats like Hubert H. Humphrey who understood that privately owned firearms keep the United States safer, freer, and more politically stable; nowadays the Republican Party has a virtual monopoly on that wisdom.
The American Principles are based on the wisdom of the framers of our system of government, that keeping men from doing great harm to each other is already more than most systems of governance can do; that when you empower the government to try to make men better, all you accomplish is allowing some arrogant men to impose their values on their brothers.
That was the way of the rest of the world before the Declaration of Independence. That was the way of the world we rejected in 1776. It took Americans a while to outgrow the old world's way of doing things -- the preservation of slavery, the continued subjugation of women, the Trail of Tears -- but we learned from those mistakes and moved on.
Let us seek consensus, but let that consensus preserve our right to disagree and live our own lives without arrogant interference. This is possible only when we are allowed to keep our own consciences and get out of each other's faces.
That was the idea that launched this country and it still shows a better promise for working than anything proposed since.
If George W. Bush simply remembers that freedom of disagreement on how we run our own lives is the basis for the American system of government, his presidency will find a consensus that all of us, Democratic, Republican, or otherwise, can live with.
J. Neil Schulman
December 15, 2000