Alex Massie

The Federal Problem

Text settings

Conor Friedersdorf makes a point that is too often overlooked:

Abraham Lincoln often commuted three miles on horseback so he could sleep on the grounds of a military hospital at night; and that once during the Civil War a British traveler who wanted to meet Lincoln knocked on his door, got invited inside, and ended up spending over an hour chatting with the president.

It is hard to imagine a modern president enjoying so much downtime. Perhaps so many early presidents are ranked among the best because though they faced grave problems, their tasks were limited. How would Lincoln’s job performance have changed if on top of his other duties he also had to worry about FEMA, the TVA, OSHA, the NEA, the NIH, the USDA, HUD, the FDIC, the DOT, the ONDCP, the Department of Energy, the OMB, the Department of Education...

This seems true to me, though one ought also to remember the power nostalgia exerts when these presidential rankings are compiled. The desire to return to a quasi-mythical simpler age is strong.

Still Conor has a good point. Many of these programmes and departments could quite easily be abolished completely or, in other cases (eg, education, HUD) simply repatriated to the states. That would be a good thing anyway, absent any other consideration. One reason that the electorate is so disenchanted (Congress's approval rating remains below 20%) with Washington politics is not so much concerns over "partisanship" (generally meek and mild in the US, by international standards anyway) but that nothing ever seems to get done and what does get done is all too frequently either incomprehensible or riddled with so many trade-offs and concessions as to be all but pointless. The business of government increasingly seems to be about creating more business for government. While Good News for the political-media complex, this depresses "ordinary" voters who, in many ways, would just like a spot of clarity. (Once upon a bit of time that was considered one of George W Bush's virtues.) As it is, government seems muscle-bound.

And handing power back to the States would, I like to think, be a good idea on policy as well as philosophical grounds. What works in Maine may not work in Mississippi; the solutions to California and Nebraska may well require different solutions even to problems that may, on the surface, seem similar. Just as importantly, elevating the States at the expense of the federal government would, theoretically at least, prove useful to liberals and conservatives alike. When government seems distant and unaccountable voters lose faith in government itself (bad news for progressives), while subsidiarity and localism  - the anithesis of one size fits all managerialism - ought to be a core conservative principle too.

In any case, is it possible to legislate for a country of 300m people? One migth as well say one can legislate for the whole of Europe. Of course, the EU likes to think it can: no wonder it too is an organisation held in such disrepute even in countries more enthusiastic about the european "project" than Britain. Too often Brussels is just as aloof and arrogant as Washington; too often it's also just as ineffective. Far better for both to set a few commonly agreed principles and, if you like, a constitutional framework and then retreat to let individual states do the rest themselves. That's to say, the United States might be better off - or at least happier -  if it were more like the EU, while the EU should look at Washington and see the perils of moving towards an ever closer, more "perfect" union.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSociety