Renewing the American Idea
Chairman Ryan’s Remarks, as Prepared for Delivery
Hillsdale College, The Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship
Hi, everybody. I want to thank Dr. Spalding and everyone at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center for inviting me here today. You might think it’s a little late to give an Independence Day address, but New York’s delegates to the Continental Congress didn’t adopt the Declaration of Independence until July 15. So I’d like to think I’m fashionably late—or as they’d say in New York, “right on time.”
Indeed, the topic is always timely. That’s because the Declaration of Independence will always be the defining statement of the American Idea, and the greatest political statement of human liberty ever written.
Everyone knows the stories of how the American Revolution was a difficult and often desperate struggle. We forget in hindsight just how unlikely it was that they would succeed. Many times defeat seemed all but inevitable. Some despaired. Yet that small band of patriot statesmen achieved victory against a long established ruler of seemingly unlimited power and authority. They did so by remaining dedicated to America’s cause and to each other . . . fighting hard at every turn . . . knowing that their success or failure would determine whether they or any people would ever fight again for the great purpose of governing themselves.
In the past, our nation has survived its trials, prospered, and endured. And so has our liberty. I believe we are in a great period of trial again. Yet I am confident that our country can survive, prosper, and endure for many more generations. But all of this depends—as it did in the spring of 1776, or the fall of 1860, or the end of 1941—on what we do and how we act to shape the course of events.
On the surface, the problem seems obvious: We have a President who treats the rule of law more like a rule of thumb. But look more closely, and you’ll see the problem isn’t this president—or at least it’s not only this president. When he leaves office, there will be plenty of candidates like him ready to take his spot. All he’s done is to empower and embolden a certain governing philosophy—one at odds with our founding principles. And this philosophy is gaining ground by the day. The point is, our opponents see politics as a long-term project; we need to do the same.
I want to argue today that in everything we do—in every policy we propose—we need to renew the American Idea. Conservatism is not about the past. It’s not a misty-eyed nostalgia for a world that’s come and gone. And it’s not a skittish disposition to merely “go it slow”—to tinker around the edges. Nor is conservatism about blind opposition to government. For sure, government today is too big, bureaucratic, inefficient, and unaccountable. But we must not jettison the very rule of law that shields our liberty. No, conservatism is about conserving something—principles that are timeless because they are true—to be renewed and applied in our time.
Now, what is the American Idea? In short, it’s self-government under the rule of law. The American Idea is rooted in our respect for the rights with which we are each endowed, a respect that shapes a society where every person can work hard, achieve success, and advance in life.
Why is this idea so special? Well, for most of human history, a very different idea reigned supreme: the idea that people are fundamentally different. Some are born to rule and others to obey. Almost all were subjects or serfs—shorn of all distinction and firmly stuck in place.
But the Founders rebelled against this idea. They said everyone is created equal. They have unalienable rights that come from God. And government is legitimate only if it secures these rights. The Founders were the first to take these self-evident truths and put them into practice. They were the first to tell the world—and prove by their example—that the best government rests on the consent of the governed.
It wasn’t easy. Their first attempt—the Articles of Confederation—failed. So instead, they wrote a new Constitution that both strengthened and limited the federal government. It gave Congress enough power to pass laws for the common good. But it also gave the President and the courts power to push back when Congress tried to do too much—and vice versa. The very structure of the federal government was a vindication of self-government—the three branches would control each other so none of them could control the people. Limiting government and freeing up the associations of civil society would make safety and security, self-government and liberty, comfort and prosperity accessible to everyone.
So in addition to our birth certificate, the Founders gave us the blueprint for a free society: a set of unchanging principles, as well as a framework of government for a growing nation.
But it wasn’t just a set of abstract ideas and a procedural code of law. Our Declaration and our Constitution define nothing less than a way of life for a people. A free people of good character, who would labor for themselves, their families and communities, grateful to the Divine Source of their rights, and committed to providing the blessings of liberty to their posterity.
The framers themselves disagreed about many particulars in the Constitution. No sooner had it gone into effect than they added a Bill of Rights. Each generation struggled with different issues. Could Congress create a bank? Could the president buy Louisiana? Could the federal government build roads and bridges? But there was one thing on which they all agreed: the Constitution was our guide and the Declaration our North Star. And the Constitution endured because it allowed prudent statesmen to make wise decisions that preserved self-government under the rule of law.
There was one great failure: slavery. But it wasn’t a failure of the Constitution. It was a failure of statesmanship. Many of the Founders knew that slavery was wrong. But since they couldn’t end it there and then, they wrote a Constitution that would allow a future generation to do so. Unfortunately, for decades thereafter, frightened politicians north and south kicked the can down the road.
Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, saw the solution: not to depart from, but return to the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution. In the struggle of Civil War, the Declaration defined the high ground, and the Constitution proved powerful enough to reunite a shattered nation. Cleansed with three postwar amendments, the Constitution emancipated and offered citizenship to millions.
Having endured for over one hundred years, the Constitution was a victim of its own success. As our cities grew more crowded—and our economy more prosperous and unpredictable—some came to believe the Constitution was obsolete. And so, for the first time, they said we needed a wholesale change. The founding project was over, they argued, and the age of “administration” had begun. This new age called for a “living” Constitution, one whose meaning did not rest on fixed principles but which changed according to the winds—and whims—of time. In this Progressive vision, self-government had to give way to technical expertise, to professional bureaucrats governing according to their centralized plans.
The Founders believed in the ability of men and women to govern themselves, and they distrusted unchecked power, which is why they limited government and promoted robust civil society. Progressives think it better to govern men, and they seek a much larger and more active central government that reaches further and further into our lives.
Unfortunately, through fits and starts over the course of the 20th century, the Progressive approach has become a mindset at the heart of the modern Democratic Party, just as it has clouded Republican thinking as well. This is a core problem we face today.
The American Idea has not been rejected, far from it; and the Progressive countervision has never commanded a settled majority. Americans embrace some programs first championed by Progressives, but reject others. They accept many aspects of modern government, while still insisting on their rights and constitutional forms. They have never consented to be ruled by experts, and object to government micromanaging their lives.
So this raises a question: How should we proceed?
We must begin by recognizing practical reality, but always move, sometimes coaxing, sometimes pushing, toward the enduring principles to which we are dedicated. Maneuvering in the sea of politics, we are forced to tack, but always guided by and steering toward our fixed North Star.
Self-government under the rule of law is the conservative touchstone. It rests upon human equality and our equal endowment with fundamental rights. It helps us identify measures that conform to the American Idea, and those that weaken or conflict with the American Idea. There’s our sure guide for reform.
Here’s a practical distinction.
There is a difference in principle—a clear bright line—between two kinds of government programs. On the one hand, there are those that can be repaired and restructured within the bounds of limited government. Let’s review those, and as we choose let’s reform them, and even upgrade them, making them more efficient through market mechanisms, more decentralized and transparent, more fiscally sound and, more true to self government.
But there are also many programs of government that are defined by massive bureaucracies intended to direct large segments of our society and economy. These programs are centrally directed, consist of arbitrary regulations and directives that increase uncertainty and insecurity, and replace popular government by bureaucratic rule. It’s a hodgepodge of boards and commissions with uncertain responsibilities and unaccountable decision-making. This way of governing creates relationships between government and money that encourage cronyism and breed political corruption. More and more Americans are right to see these programs as threats to their freedom, their well-being, and their right to self-government. This whole approach is irreconcilable with the American Idea, and it must be rejected.
The American Idea imposes a duty to oppose those programs which subvert popular government and impose administrative rule. These programs and their administrative forms—leading examples being Obamacare and the Dodd–Frank financial apparatus—cannot be reformed and restructured, but must be ended or, if we choose, replaced by something completely different and consistent with popular consent and self-government.
No reform is possible without recognizing this problem. No reform is worth pursuing that does not turn against this rule and take us on the path of principled renewal.
Now, the progressives were right about something: The country was crying out for a national safety net, especially in light of the Great Depression. The people agreed that we should pool our resources to protect hardworking families. And yes, they wanted smart, talented people to run the federal government. But they didn’t want those smart, talented people to run their lives. They wanted to enlist the federal government in the service of self-government. They didn’t want to turn over the keys.
But progressives didn’t pick up on those niceties. Once they got their foot in the door, they stayed. And they grew. First, there was the New Deal, then the Fair Deal, then the Great Society. And in 2008, they saw what they thought was another opening. This was their chance to cement their philosophy into place. They say everything they’ve done in the past five years is a logical extension of the safety net. If you liked Medicare, you’ll love Obamacare. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Instead, the people have resisted. And the Left is baffled. Why support the safety net but not progressivism?
Here’s the difference: Everybody understands the safety net. And everybody benefits from it. Take Social Security. We all know how it works—or at least how it’s supposed to work. When you’re working, you pay in. And when you’re retired, it pays out. It’s the same thing with Medicare—simple, straightforward. Everybody gets old. Everybody gets sick. And so everybody contributes in exchange for a secure retirement. Most people think that’s a fair trade. And I agree.
That’s the opposite of the Affordable Care Act. Nobody understands it. Everybody is anxious. If you listened to the sales pitch, it seemed simple enough: Every business with over 50 full-time employees must offer health insurance—period. Or maybe not. Maybe, you can get a delay . . . or a waiver . . . or an exemption. How do you get one? Nobody knows. The administration makes decisions on the fly, so the law changes every day. Under the ACA, an autonomous board called IPAB decides what kind of care people on Medicare will have in the future. Bureaucrats are calling the shots and running the show.
Or take Dodd–Frank. Some say it’s like deposit insurance. But deposit insurance protects the little guy. Dodd–Frank, on the other hand, protects the big guys—that is, the biggest, most powerful financial institutions in the country. The result is predictable: Big banks get bigger and small banks get fewer. More insidious is that this law vastly expands these bureaucrats’ power to simply take over the daily operations of any large financial institution they deem to be in trouble. So you can understand the skepticism. In short, the difference between the safety net and progressivism is the difference between fair play and playing favorites.
You see, the safety net jibes with self-government; Progressive bureaucracy does not. The one gives people more control over their lives, while the other takes it away. And there’s a key principle at work here. The reason you have more control is you earned it. You paid in. You made the difference. That’s the very heart of self-government: We the people are the masters of our fate. We can improve our lot by dint of our own efforts—by working together of our own free will. Nobody has to force us or oversee us. Earned success and earned security go hand in hand.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Everything wasn’t all hunky-dory until this President came to town. Social Security and Medicare are going broke—they’ve been going broke for years. The politicians made promises they couldn’t keep, and the bill is about to come due. We conservatives must be committed to strengthening these programs—because that’s what hardworking taxpayers have earned and made clear in election after election. Limited government with popular consent is the principle we’re trying to uphold.
Every idea I’ve proposed would give people more control over their future. They paid in all these years so they would have health insurance. Why not let them choose their health insurance? More choice means more control, which means more freedom. The argument for conservatism isn’t just that it’s more efficient—it’s the heart of self-government. And the problem with progressivism isn’t just that it’s more expensive. The problem is it undermines self-government.
That’s the difference. And it’s a key distinction—one we need to keep in mind—because there’s another fallacy popular among our ranks. Just as some think anything government does is wrong, others think anything business does is right. But in fact they’re two sides of the same coin. Both big government and big business like to stack the deck in their favor. And though they are sometimes adversaries, they are far too often allies.
Bureaucrats prefer to work with the big boys, instead of upstarts they don’t know. They’re more predictable—and easier to control. So government tips the scales in their favor, instead of letting competition sort things out. And big business is a willing accomplice—because regulation keeps the competition out. Many times they don’t oppose new regulations; instead, they help write them. The point is, crony capitalism isn’t a side effect; it’s a direct result of big government.
And you can see the results at work throughout our economy. It used to be that only the success stories were household names. Now the failures are household names: Solyndra, Fisker, Tesla. And businessmen don’t spend all their time hustling in the marketplace. They spend more and more time hustling in Washington. Both businessmen and bureaucrats take part in this culture of double standards. Just take the IRS. It tells every family to keep seven years’ worth of tax records, but it can’t keep six months’ worth of emails. It’s a disgrace.
Neither the founders of America nor of free-market economics would recognize in this stratified system a truly open market of commerce. It isn’t open. It isn’t equal in opportunity. It isn’t producing equitable profit growth or hope for those at the bottom of the ladder. It isn’t driven by satisfying the needs of people; but by experts, calculus, wealth, and preference.
My friend Congressman Jeb Hensarling has recently launched a great challenge against the crony capitalist economy, and in particular, against one of its manifestations, the Export-Import Bank. But the bank is just one example of how bureaucratic government is corrupting free enterprise through and through. Conservatives must stop defending this. Cronyism is the Progressives’ project for economic control. Let them defend it.
Finally, there is the temptation to ask courts to intervene and solve our problems for us. Some conservatives think of judges the way Progressives think of bureaucrats: technical experts with the solutions to constitutional conflicts. But judges, like bureaucrats, are often the problem. We must be mindful of this temptation. It is true the Supreme Court can be an ally in conflicts surrounding the constitution. But, it can also be an adversary. We can’t rely on the Court alone to defend our rights. Under our Constitution of self-government, the court that really counts is the court of public opinion, where the American people hand down their verdict on Election Day.
In popular government, the people are the final judge and jury. And, to come full circle, we must never forget that a people who claim the right of self-government are always on trial. This country began as a people on trial. Out of our first trial in the Revolutionary Era, we adopted the greatest, most enduring Constitution ever written. We were tried in civil war and world wars, in depressions and inflations, and we survived and prospered. Every effort to take self-government away from our people has been defeated—so far. Will we prevail again?
Nothing in history is inevitable. There are no short cuts or silver bullets. If we are to get through our current problems, as we have done in the past, we must do it by our own wits and our own efforts. In this sense, the Constitution is not a living document so much as a life-giving document. It gives purpose and direction to our way of life as a free people. Let us remain committed to the American Idea. With the inherent good sense of the American people, we can—we must—and I believe we will, get through these trials together, freer and stronger than ever before.