Obama: “The private sector is doing fine”

President Obama said something that will be a much-replayed sound-bite in the presidential race:

Laying out his economic argument at a morning news conference, Obama said that cutbacks in state and local government spending have slowed the nation’s recovery and that Congress has “no excuse” for not supporting his jobs bill that would provide funding to retain public workers.

“The private sector,” the president added as a point of comparison, “is doing fine.”

The remark struck a discordant political note in the current economic climate, and Republican adversaries pounced on the assertion to lampoon him for being out of touch. And at least politically, Obama played directly into the GOP argument that he does not understand the depths of the economic crisis and that he is too dependent on government to solve the economy’s problems.

via Obama blames Congress for inaction on jobs while Romney calls president ‘out of touch’ – The Washington Post.

Unlike Republican operatives, I refuse to pounce on the remark and am willing to accept it as  careless speech.  But what concerns me about it is the assumption behind the remark and the ideology it demonstrates.  What the president wants is to increase PUBLIC SECTOR jobs.  What he thinks is wrong with the economy is that there aren’t enough GOVERNMENT workers.  Obama’s job plan is to hire more teachers, policemen, and firemen, which may be well and good but they are all government employees.  This orientation helps account for the Democrats’ uprising in Wisconsin when public sector unions were challenged.  (I don’t remember such an uproar when the autoworkers’ union in Racine had its plant shut down.)  The underlying issue, again, is how big government should be.

Big state government vs. little local government

In classic conservative political theory, the most significant form of government is what is closest to the people; that is, local governments in which the people select their neighbors to govern the community.  As levels of government get farther and farther away from the people who elected them, political involvement becomes ever more abstract and the distant government gets potentially ever more problematic, especially when it usurps power from the officials closer to the people.

Nevertheless, today many state governments–particularly some that are Republican-controlled–are working to minimize the authority of local governments.  Some of these conservative state legislators complain about a too powerful federal government usurping the rights of the states, while themselves working to increase the power of state government at the expense of city and county governments.

Debates about the relative authority of state and local government are not new. But in places such as Tennessee, where Republicans claimed comfortable majorities in the legislature in 2010, they come with a different subtext.

Many of these state lawmakers have accused the federal government of adopting an imperious, one-size-fits-all mentality and of subverting the rightful powers of states. At the same time, many high-profile debates in the Tennessee Capitol over the past two years — on topics such as local wage rules and local non-discrimination rules, among others — have centered on the state trying to limit the power of localities to make decisions for themselves.

To some critics, that’s a sign of hypocrisy. What conservative supporters of these laws argue, though, is that localities sometimes use their power in ways that are inconsistent with values the state holds dear, such as defending property rights and reducing government regulation. Their case is that the only way the legislature can enact its vision for government is to use the power it has, not delegate it to others.

Most of the legislation in Tennessee hasn’t passed yet, and some of it seems unlikely to pass soon. Still, in Tennessee and elsewhere, it’s clear that for conservative lawmakers, local control is just one principle, a principle that sometimes is superseded by others.

While the extent of local government autonomy varies from state to state, nowhere is that autonomy absolute. Even in states such as Tennessee that offer limited “home rule,” state governments can act to overrule the localities.

“What the locals need to remember,” said Tennessee state Rep. Jim Gotto (R), “is that all the power they have is what has been delegated to them by the state.”

As a result, states and localities are engaged in a constant push and pull in state capitols. In Indiana, for example, the legislature rejected a bill this year that would have given some local jurisdictions the power to ask voters for tax increases to pay for public transit. The move came even though the mayor of Indianapolis considered the bill a top priority and the measure had the support of other local officials and business groups.

via Republican legislatures move to preempt local government – The Washington Post.

It sounds like the emphasis is on final results rather than conservative principles.  Taxes are bad and development is good, reason the state legislators, so they are voting to prevent local communities from raising taxes and limiting development.  But shouldn’t the particular communities have the right to make decisions on issues like those?   Are those bottom-line issues more important than the principle of limited government?  If the federal government were to issue mandates on those issues that were to conservatives’ liking, would conservatives be OK with that, even if it meant usurping the jurisdiction of both state and local governments?

Misunderstanding our founding documents?

E. J. Dionne says that, contrary to what tea party conservatives are saying, our founding documents are not anti-government:

A reading of the Declaration of Independence makes clear that our forebears were not revolting against taxes as such — and most certainly not against government as such.

In the long list of “abuses and usurpations” the Declaration documents, taxes don’t come up until the 17th item, and that item is neither a complaint about tax rates nor an objection to the idea of taxation. Our Founders remonstrated against the British crown “for imposing taxes on us without our consent.” They were concerned about “consent,” i.e. popular rule, not taxes.

The very first item on their list condemned the king because he “refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” Note that the signers wanted to pass laws, not repeal them, and they began by speaking of “the public good,” not about individuals or “the private sector.” They knew that it takes public action — including effective and responsive government — to secure “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Their second grievance reinforced the first, accusing the king of having “forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance.” Again, our forebears wanted to enact laws; they were not anti-government zealots.

Abuses three through nine also referred in some way to how laws were passed or justice was administered. The document doesn’t really get to anything that looks like Big Government oppression (“He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance”) until grievance No. 10.

This misunderstanding of our founding document is paralleled by a misunderstanding of our Constitution. “The federal government was created by the states to be an agent for the states, not the other way around,” Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said recently.

No, our Constitution begins with the words “We the People” not “We the States.” The Constitution’s Preamble speaks of promoting “a more perfect Union,” “Justice,” “the common defense,” “the general Welfare” and “the Blessings of Liberty.” These were national goals.

via What our Declaration really said – The Washington Post.

No, the founding documents were not anti-government, since they were concerned with establishing a government.  But what do you think of Dionne’s point, that today’s conservatives are taking the limited government bit too far?  (Certainly, traditional conservatives, like those in Europe, tend to favor a strong government, whereas traditional liberals were the ones who opposed strong governmental authority so they could do what they want.)

The erosion of limited government & individual sovereignty

George Wills reports on a free speech case in St. Louis:

[Jim] Roos responded [to repeated efforts by the local government to seize his property] by painting on the side of one of his buildings a large mural — a slash through a red circle containing the words “End Eminent Domain Abuse.” The government that had provoked him declared his sign “illegal” and demanded that he seek a permit for it. He did. Then the government denied the permit.

The St. Louis sign code puts the burden on the citizen to justify his or her speech rather than on the government to justify limiting speech. And the code exempts certain kinds of signs from requiring permits. These include works of art, flags of nations, states or cities, and symbols or crests of religious, fraternal or professional organizations. And, of course, the government exempted political signs. So the exempted categories are defined by the signs’ content.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm defending Roos, notes that signs may be the oldest form of mass communication — Gutenberg made advertising posters — and they remain an inexpensive means of communicating with fellow citizens. St. Louis says that it regulates signs for “aesthetic” reasons and to promote traffic safety, but it admits that it has no guidelines for the bureaucrats exercising aesthetic discretion and no empirical evidence connecting signs with traffic risks. And why would Roos’s mural be less aesthetic and more distracting to drivers than, say, a sign — exempted from any permit requirement — urging the election of the kind of city officials who enjoy censoring Roos?

St. Louis is not the problem; government is. Many people go into it because they enjoy bossing people around. Surely this is why a court had to overturn a decision by the government of Glendale, Ohio, when it threatened a man with fines and jail because he put a “for sale” sign in his car parked in front of his house. The city said that people might be distracted by the sign and walk into traffic.

St. Louis Alderman Phyllis Young is distressed that Roos’s speech might escape government control: “If this sign is allowed to remain, then anyone with property along any thoroughfare can paint signs indicating the opinion or current matter relevant to the owner to influence passersby with no control by any City agency. The precedent should not be allowed.”

The alderman’s horror of uncontrolled speech is an example of what Elizabeth Price Foley, law professor at Florida International University, calls “an ineluctable byproduct of disregarding the morality of American law.” In her book “Liberty for All” (2006, Yale), she says that the growing exercise of legislative power “in the name of majoritarian whims” has eroded America’s “twin foundational presumptions” — limited government and residual individual sovereignty.

via In St. Louis, a protest sign meets government arrogance – The Washington Post.

Can you think of other examples of the erosion of these “twin foundational presumptions”? Is there the possibility that we might have too much individual sovereignty and that our government is too limited? Or are there lines that need to be drawn?

Limited government in foreign policy

George Will defends President Obama against those who criticize him for not being able to control what is happening in Egypt:

In 1949, when communists came to power there [in China], America bestrode both hemispheres shattered from war. Americans thought that their nation was at the wheel of the world and that whatever happened, wherever, happened at America’s instigation, or at least its sufferance, or was evidence of American negligence.

It is a sign of national maturity – the product of hard learning, from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan – that fewer American complainers are today faulting the Obama administration for not anticipating and shaping events in Egypt. Israel, which lives next door to Egypt and has an excellent intelligence service, did not see this coming. So, a modest proposal:

Those Americans who know which Republican will win next year’s Iowa caucuses can complain about those who did not know that when a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, he would set a region afire. From all other Americans, forbearance would be seemly.

It also would be amazing, because there is a cottage industry of Barack Obama critics who, not content with monitoring his myriad mistakes in domestic policies, insist that there must be a seamless connection of those with his foreign policy. Strangely, these critics, who correctly doubt the propriety and capacity of the U.S. government controlling our complex society, simultaneously fault the government for not having vast competence to shape the destinies of other societies.

via George F. Will – Egypt’s revolution to win or lose.