Lane Violation

Note: A version of this article appeared in the May edition of Tea Party Review magazine. As the budget battles begin in earnest in Washington and in state capitals across the nation, the debates have ranged from sober to stupid.

The sober discussions center on the enormity of the debt problem we face, and the inadequate response to date.

The Republicans appear to lack the political capital or the courage to bring the debt issue to a crucial showdown on Capitol Hill, even though the fight will keep coming to them repeatedly going forward, whether they like it or not.

The Democrats' insistence that higher taxes on the so-called "wealthy" is the answer is refuted immediately when you consider that a 100% tax on all the assets of everyone making over $100,000 wouldn't even cover the first year of debt.

Then there's the stupid part of the debate, like this paragraph that is making the rounds on the Internet:

Remember when teachers, public employees, planned parenthood, NPR and PBS crashed the stock market, wiped out half of our 401Ks, took trillions in TARP money, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, gave themselves billions in bonuses, and paid no taxes? Yeah, me neither.

As my mother would say, "What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?" This class warfare time bomb is riddled with enough fallacies to fill a page, and it misses a core principle at the heart of each budget decision our elected officials must make in the months ahead.

When I was on active duty, a phrase we used often to reinforce discipline and order in the execution of our duties was "lanes in the road," which meant each function had a clearly defined set of responsibilities that were complementary but not duplicative. As long as each function stayed in its lane, military operations were conducted efficiently and effectively.

Human nature isn't dramatically different, and the concept of a natural system, within which each function has clearly defined duties for which it was specifically designed, and where those duties are critical and complementary but not duplicative, is as old as time.

1 Corinthians 12:17-18 says, "If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be."

Catholic social teaching captures the essence of lanes in the role in the principle of subsidiarity, "according to which ‘a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.’”

As an organizing principle, subsidiarity always defers to the organizational level, be it the individual, family, community, charity, church or local government, closest to the matter at hand.

On reflection, this is common sense. The organizational level closest to the person or issue in question has a better understanding of all the factors involved, is more directly invested in a resolution, and can deliver a tailored solution more quickly than an entity that is distant from the problem.

The Constitution of the United States of America was heavily influenced by the principle of subsidiarity, and is a governmental model for how lanes in the road are supposed to work. It is very explicit in defining the duties of the federal government, and it intends for revenue collection to be targeted toward fulfilling those specific duties, and nothing else.

The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution also states that any duties not explicitly called out in the Constitution as the responsibility of the federal government are "reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

I contend that America's current challenges, and the solution to those challenges, hinge on how willing we are to force the federal government back into its lane.

Frankly, I contend that every major budget problem we are encountering today, at all levels of government, is in some way due to the federal government depositing its ample hindquarters across multiple lanes where it doesn't belong.

When the federal government gets out of its lane, not only does it attempt, and largely fail, to perform duties for which it is poorly designed, it also stifles the ability and desire of other critical organizations and individuals to perform their assigned duties.

To those who claim that individuals, families communities, churches and charities can't meet the basic needs of the people, I push back and declare it's not that they can't, but rather that they're not permitted, encouraged or conditioned to do so because of the 800-pound gorilla sitting in their laps.

Both parties are simply tinkering at the margins and aren't serious about deficit reduction if they won't take on the task of transforming, rather than simply reforming, government. The European Union has standards for determining whether or not it will intervene in the matters of its member states, and we should apply similar standards to our evaluation of every federal program:

  • The action must be necessary because actions of individuals or member-state governments alone will not achieve the objectives of the action (the sufficiency criterion).
  • The action must bring added value over and above what could be achieved by individual or member-state government action alone (the benefit criterion).
  • Decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the citizen (the close to the citizen criterion).
  • The action should secure greater freedoms for the individual (the autonomy criterion).

Until we answer the question a mentor always asked me, "I'm sure it's a worthy cause, but should the federal government be paying for it?”, we won't solve the debt crisis. It's time for us, as the owners of this government, to declare a lane violation and get this clunker back into its own lane.