The Consent of the Governed

I am still riled up about Steve Schmidt and vaccine mandates. Something has been bothering me about the libertarian streak in the Republican psyche — the part that wants to stop reading after the first five words of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law”). Something has been nagging at me, and until now I hadn’t been able to quite put my finger on it.

Libertarians are just one short step away from being anarchists: they prefer no laws, to laws that might regulate behavior or mandate safety standards of any kind (workplace, traffic, gun, drug, food, you name it). Because, you know, Freedom! And Liberty! “That government that governs least,” they declaim, “governs best.” We should all be Free and have the Liberty to decide what is best for ourselves, as individuals. And so we should, within limits. Setting those limits is the hard work of self-governance, something we as Americans think we’re quite good at. And we used to be.

Lately the “governs least” crowd has become the party of governs-not-at-all, by imposing parliamentary gridlock on Every. Single. Piece. Of. Legislation. A bill to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure? Not without sixty votes. To be clear: not without sixty votes to allow debate. The modern filibuster doesn’t require a supermajority to pass legislation; it requires a supermajority before the Senate can talk about legislation. If this strikes you as oddly undemocratic, you are not alone. It angers political observers at home, and bewilders those abroad. If de Tocqueville were writing today, “Democracy in America” would be a very different book indeed.

Self-styled libertarians like Rand Paul (R-KY) are one thing: they believe not in the concepts of liberty but in the soapbox a Senate or safe House seat provides them; they spout off because they can, and because their diatribes make good television back home and enrage the Other Side — whoever that might be. (As the latest Internet meme has it: Opposition to common-sense public health measures might be deadly, but at least we own the libs!)

Then there are more thoughtful libertarians, old-school Republicans like Steve Schmidt and Bill Kristol, who oppose “big government” because, well, it’s big and government should be small. People should be free to choose, they say, what is best for them: government shouldn’t decide for them. The problem with this argument, it seems to me, is right there in Jefferson’s text which they revere:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed: ten words that define, it seems to me, majority rule, the very essence of self-governance in what we call democracy. Here, finally, is what has been bothering me all along about libertarianism generally, and about the opposition to government vaccine and mask mandates: “Government shouldn’t tell me what to do,” is all well and good, but it’s not “government” telling you: it’s your friends and neighbors. They speak through government, by virtue of their greater numbers at the polls. They tell you. They limit your personal freedom, according to their collective wisdom.

This is not the Wild West, and this is not the world as we all might wish it should be: this is the world as it is, and as it is requires that we all abide by the same set of rules: rules that limit our personal freedom, so that our behavior doesn’t impinge on someone else’s rights; rules that limit what we sell as food, as drink, as medicine; regulation of construction materials and methods. Glass-Steagall wasn’t an arbitrary and capricious limitation on banking; it was enacted to remedy conditions that led to the Great Depression: it created rules and structure, within which banks could operate freely. They couldn’t be under-capitalized and they couldn’t take excessive risks. The erosion of Glass-Steagall over the years, culminating in its repeal in 1999, led directly to the Great Recession of 2008.

History might not repeat exactly, but it certainly echoes. It might benefit us all if the champions of Liberty! and Freedom! bore that in mind before spouting off.