Blog 39. Is federal regulation legal?

In drafting the federal constitution, the founding fathers didn’t foresee a government involved in administering diverse things like air travel, radio waves, rivers, and food purity.  The Constitution specifically allows regulation of interstate commerce and postal roads, but, for example, does it allow federal regulation of pollution in rivers?  That seems to be an unanswered question.  Today, the breadth of federal activities provides a battleground for differences of political philosophy.  At the date of this writing, those differences are focused on the budget deficit and on the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), but the differences are more fundamental than any particular action—or inaction—of Congress.

Large government replaces the Constitution?

A friend handed me a publication of Hillsdale College, which advertises itself as “pursuing truth” and “defending liberty”.  The distinguished author, John Marini, argues that the Constitution did not provide for “an administrative state,” although he doesn’t quite define the term.  His thesis is that governance is no longer based on constitutional principles, but rather it is an administration that carries out government policies.   He states there has been no consensus that makes legitimate “the administrative state as a replacement for the Constitution.”

Whoa.  The Constitution has been replaced?  I’m grateful to Marini for offering this view of why the political Right fears Big Government.  I understand the fear of budget deficits, but I can’t see that any particular size of government violates the Constitution.  That question of regulation is nagging, but there are reasons why our society needs federal regulations, and why Congress, not the bureaucracy, is in charge.  The Constitution clearly puts Congress in control of taxation and spending.  Only the Congress can pass a budget.  Congress has neither the time nor the expertise to supervise the impact of every nickel of that budget, but Congress has the authority to control both the taxation and the expenditure, and that combination can control the bureaucracy.  The chronic budget deficit is not due to any replacement of the Constitution.  It’s the fault of Congress present and Congress past.

Complexity generates  Big Government

Paranoia of Big Government fails to critically review what actually happened, why government grew from small to big, why there are so many governmental agencies with so many rules and so many bureaucrats, and whether governmental agencies actually replace the Constitution as Marini claims.  His nostalgic yearning for the simple government of earlier eras fails to recognize the increases in population and complexity that create the need for Big Government.  We are no longer a nation of rural farmers, each person interacting with only a few other people.

Today, what I do can affect someone in New York or anywhere else, and vice versa.  Most of us have hundreds–or thousands–of connections to others.  Do we want a government that ignores air travel, the purity and labeling of foods and medicines, the pollution of rivers, the safety of highways, the national forests and parks, urban smog, radio waves, and banking?  Should we return to patent medicines sold from wagons?  Should any airplane go wherever the pilot wants at any time?  Should any industry dump its wastes anywhere?  Should any person or corporation do whatever it wants if it has enough money?  Should only the rich dictate the wages of the poor?  Should we use technology but keep ourselves scientifically illiterate, promoting anti-science in our schools?

I don’t argue for social engineering, which is a deliberate attempt to steer society in a predetermined direction without request from those who are affected.  I do argue that society is a complex system of regulations, written and unwritten; therefore, total freedom from regulation occurs only for a lone person in a jungle.  Complex systems, including society, tend to operate at the edge of chaos.  Regulation constrains the extremes of the chaotic variations by reducing the freedom to do harm.

Complex systems

A complex system is a set of many decision-makers (e.g. drivers of automobiles) interacting by nonlinear (non-proportional) rules.  Our society is a complex system of three hundred million decision-makers, with connections that seem to double each decade.  Ten years ago I wasn’t bombarded daily by disguised advertising and solicitations on the internet.  I didn’t interact with web pages of information on a minute-by-minute bases.  Twenty years ago I could rely on a newspaper for an investigative story; now I often have to do the investigation myself, probing other sources electronically.  Changes increase the complexity.

Marini presents an ideology based on a simpler society, which he sees as constitutional paradise.  However, he ignores that slavery and cholera and smallpox and urban crowding were not then inhibited by administrative agencies and rules.  You can’t reasonably claim, as Marini does, that Big Government began in 1970.  Government was getting big with its sponsorship of the railroads 150 years ago.  And Big Government has steadily been made bigger by the many subsidies to big oil, big agriculture, big automakers, and big banks—facts ignored by those who confuse Big Government with constitutionality.  The constitution says nothing about the size of government.

Simplicity and critical analysis

One of Marini’s misleading statements offers a glimpse of the hoped-for simplicity by avoiding the facts:  He says, “President Reagan showed that the budget process could be used to limit spending …”  In contrast, historical data show the federal deficit (as a fraction of GDP) peaked under Reagan, a peak much larger than at than any time since WWII, a peak again unmatched until the later years of Bush II when the deficit/GDP ratio more than doubled.  Congress defaulted its responsibility to the presidents.  And it still does.

Because unending deficit spending is self-destructive, I oppose deficits except for declared war and starvation.  Marini might agree with that.  But, in contrast with Marini and many super-conservative pundits, I want a political philosophy based on critical analysis of today’s reality.