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What the gov CAN and what the gov CAN'T

What the gov can and what the gov can't is the bottom of everyone's questions. It's the same question since the first human government. But back then 80,000 years ago, there was no written language. All we had was what people said. And we know that changes over time. People change. Situations change. What they say changes right along with.


We've got four basic choices. Do we want a government that:

A. Has perfectly defined powers, and people in government can only do exactly what is written, exactly and forever. No exceptions.

B. A government with no defined powers, and people in government can do whatever they want, for any reason, at any time.

C. A government with generally defined powers, that give substance and direction to people in government to act as long as they stay within the guardrails.

D. Other.


Most of human history is option B. The government is powerful, capricious, and arbitrary. Your life, property, and pursuit of happiness are at the pleasure of people in government.


The United States is choice C. We get a balance between extremes of perfectly cold rigidity and the hot flames of passion. Living, breathing people in government exercise their authority according to their personal choices within allowable bounds. This gives our government a human touch that is personal, responsive, and flexible, while limiting the worst impulses. It allows people in government the ability to deal with the unforeseen. It also provides people in society the protection for what we know happens to people in power.


The balance of power in the United States is really the only way. That doesn't mean it's perfect, but the structure of limited, expressed powers is the only real way forward. Who wants to go back to an absolute monarch or a mob? Yes, some people want this. Who wants to be controlled by a rigid computer program? Yes, there's a few there too. But the higher consensus forms around balance and moderation. And it's not just Americans. The model of our Constitution has spread around the world. Pretty much everyone at least gives a nod to the idea.


Fun fact: what nation has the oldest constitution? Yup, it's the United States. In the last 200+ years, our constitution has withstood longer than any. I mean it's a bit of a trick question because not every country has a constitution, like England for example. Is the Magna Carta their constitution? Sort of but not enough to allow them into the 'oldest constitution contest. Other countries like India have been around for much longer than the United States. However, the technical start date of their modern government only goes back to when the constitution was approved. In the case of India, that was1950. And that was way after ours.


Fun fact: Did the Founding Fathers think government was good? Nope. They all knew that all government was bad. But they also knew that people without a government would form one. Since bad governments formed no matter what, they figured they should try to form the least bad government possible. Least bad. There's a winning slogan. Vote for the US Constitution. It's the least bad government you can get. Anything else is worse. And probably way worse. So that losing slogan won the day. People jumped on board, and the oldest constitution in the world was ratified in 1788.


There were plenty of problems with our original Constitution. Allowing slavery tops the list. America's history of slavery is right up in the top of evils list from any time in history, anywhere. The fact that divisions from slavery caused a civil war, of the bloodiest magnitude of any on earth, shows the power of the evil institution. But here's something else amazing and powerful, the US Constitution, came through the bloodiest war in human history with just a light scratch. Just a few lines were changed. A few scratched out. A few were added. How did the Constitution not get canned after the Civil War? How did people still have faith in our founding documents. But that's not all...


After the Civil War there wasn't even a movement to replace the Constitution! It's not like there was unrest to replace it but the Constitution eventually won as the dominant form. No. If there was any movement to replace the Constitution it was no more than a blip. But this is rare for such a major, divisive, bloody war to not affect major change to a government. But the Constitution had a secret power. It could be amended through civil, legal means. And people decided that the best thing to do was get rid of the parts of the Constitution that allowed slavery. Within five years of the Civil War, amendments 13, 14, and 15 were passed to abolish slavery, guarantee equal protection of the law for all persons, and ensure that race was not a factor in voting rights, and did some other stuff.


The Constitution survived slavery, survived the war that ended slavery, survived westward expansion that was also genocidal and often duplicitous, mean spirited, immoral, and illegal. (We have some important work to do here.) It survived all these things. It survived giving women the right to vote. No great shock in hindsight, but women at the time didn't think it would work. It survived through and through, and only occasionally amended. And the amendments never restructured things. They more fluffed the pillows or arranged the seating chart. After 235 years, and 27 amendments, the original 18 page document is only about 10 pages longer. That's still readable in one or two sittings. Compare that to the 360 pages of the modern, unreadable California State Constitution.


As I circle back to the main point I'm veering away from, I want to say that this is all to say that there is something special about this least-worst, highly imperfect, amendable document. And we can get back to our main point by skimming over our history from 1913 to 1950, the decades we began to prefer a more arbitrary, capricious government. Some might say a more active, progressive government. But whatever adjectives you prefer, the Constitution was increasingly relegated to a secondary status, behind the an increasingly powerful president, and a decreasingly important Congress, who increasingly gave power to an administrative state that was rapidly increasing in size, scope, and cost. And side note our debt has since ballooned to the most massive debt in all of human history.


What happened? What happened that the people allowed government to slide from C, ever closer to B in our question of what kind of government we want. Do we really want a government where officials can do anything they want, at any time, for any reason? Surely, we don't. None of us want that. It's ridiculous to even discuss such an extreme, even for the sake of contrast. Our government will never conduct the evils that other, worse forms of government conduct. Remember, our government is the least bad one out there. We've fixed the worst of the worst parts that we had. We are fit, we are capable, we are strong. We have liberty and justice for all, at least aspirationally, in a poem we often recite.


So what kind of government do we want? Should we write down the things the government can do? Should we allow presidents to make war at any time for any reason? What about doing things that don't exactly start a war, but make it highly probable that we'd be involved in a war if one started? Should our government rush to defend Europe by the word of our president or do the people's representatives need a say in the matter? Should the people's representatives have a say in whether or not the nation goes to war? What about spending? Should the people's representatives have a say in spending? Who pays all this debt anyway? Does anyone have a plan that doesn't include more debt? Can we just add more debt for eternity and everything still be ok? If it's not ok someday, then who has to pay?


Bonus question: nuclear waste? Who gets stuck holding that bag?

Do we want our government to follow rules or make them up as they go? A simple thought experiment clearly shows that everyone wants government to follow the rules. Here's a new rule for the government:


We the people of the United States do ordain and establish our government with these words: Government officials can do anything they want, at any time, for any reason.


That's the most extreme constitution ever. It literally sets no boundary on the government that cannot be exceeded later. No one would be happy with that, unless you're a government official.


What if we toned it down and formed all sorts of rules where only some government officials could do certain things, and different government officials could do different things. They wouldn't be allowed to swap powers. Let's say that we created a Congress to represent the people. And considering that war weighs heavily on the people, we decided that only the people's direct representatives could make the decision to go to war. That would make sense because a president is just a single person. They might have reasons to go to war that the people don't support. A president might force people to fight in an immoral, pointless, political, cash cow for weapons manufacturers. It's not like power doesn't corrupt people in power. So, why not. That war might even grant the president increased power, stature, and political prospects.


So, let's make a constitution with a bunch of rules, but when it comes to war, let's say: the president may make war at any time, for any reason, against any nation, person or group, and all people of the United States are bound to support the president, including financially in any amount of their property and even with their lives.


Wow! That would be one powerful president. But it's not recommended to say that in the Constitution. It's guaranteed to end badly. We should have a deliberative body make the decision to go to war. And that deliberative body should take that responsibility very seriously. The decision to go to war should be regarded as possibly their most important decision making ability. They should guard that ability with all honor.


But if the people of the United States don't hold Congress responsible for gross negligence, I guess it doesn't matter what you say or write. The president will do whatever he or she can get away with, when it's convenient, and use whatever political maneuvering necessary to escape consequences.


It's almost like the people of the United States are bought and paid for.


Boy, that really makes you wonder. Are Americans on the take? It sure seems like we're acting like it. Gross negligence from Congress. Meh. Gross malevolence from the President. Eh? Oh, that?! Blame the other half. Gross absurdity and illegality from a boring department of the administrative state? - crickets - Yes, it seems like the problem is deeper than any one person, any branch of government, any political party. It's like the whole nation has lost its way. It's us. It's we the people. We're the one's responsible for this mess.


And that makes perfect sense. We are the sovereign here. We granted the right to govern: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."


I think the problem is that we just need to get in there and get this thing back on track. That means getting rid of the things that got us off track. How deeply do you want to clean? Surface touch up? Or seriously get the skeletons out of the closet, deal with the nuclear waste, decide who really gets to decide who goes to war, and make a budget and stick to it?


Surface touch up is not interesting to me. Yes, there are surfaces that need cleaning. I'm all in favor of cleaning them. Sometimes cleaning just a surface can inspire people to see their surroundings in a new way. One time in the Navy I was cleaning the rack of the cleaning bottles. The rack was caked with dust and grime. One of the supervising chiefs scoffed at me for cleaning that. But you know what? No one had ever thought to clean the cleaning supplies. They got completely disgusting over years of neglect. I did the same thing for years. It was probably two years of living on the ship that I realized, "Hey that needs cleaning too." And after ten minutes, we had the cleanest cleaning racks and cleaning spray bottles anywhere on the ship. Did something else not get cleaned because I was cleaning that?


Yes, we need to prioritize. That's what I bring. The priority is cleaning. The priority is not accepting gross negligence. The priority is straightening and organizing. As long as we are pulling weeds, mowing, trimming, and dumping the waste, then we're moving in the right direction. We're going to say what we want our government to do, understanding we have no claim on anyone else's life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness. Then we're going to get the least bad government that we can be exceedingly proud of.











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