“This is the most important election of our lifetime.” I used to scoff at this quip made each election cycle by political pundits and partisans. However, given the massive, unchecked expansion of government power in recent decades, I now take this statement seriously. Each election presents a pivotal choice regarding the scope of authority we allow the federal government to assert over society, the economy, and even our personal lives.
Since the New Deal era, the trajectory of American governance has moved steadily toward greater centralized control and planning. Administration after administration and Congressional session after Congressional session, Washington accumulates more regulatory power, bureaucratic agencies, red tape, and tax-and-spend schemes. Slowly but surely, government authoritarianism is hurting the economy and the benefits of individual freedom, which are exactly what made the United States unique and special among other countries to begin with.
The growth of the federal Leviathan has been enabled by members of both political parties. Democratic administrations have pushed boundaries with proposals like Obamacare while Republicans have offered half-measures at best in response. For example, witness George W. Bush’s budget-busting wars and entitlement expansions or Donald Trump’s soaring deficits and debt accumulation. After some short-term backtracking from 2010 to 2014, sparked by the Tea Party movement, the GOP has mostly given up on its promise of limited government since Trump took office.
Elections indeed have consequences. Federal spending now consumes over one-third of America’s entire economic output while totaling over an unfathomable $6 trillion per year. The modern regulatory regime has become so vast and complex that businesses and individuals can scarcely navigate their daily affairs without running afoul of one dictate or another. Even supposed “moderates” like President Biden envision a dramatic acceleration of governmental authority over private enterprise and individual lives.
Given these stark ideological differences between the major parties, this November’s contest constitutes an unusually clear fork-in-the-road for the republic. One path leads to more freedom and flourishing while the other heads toward stagnation and serfdom under central planning. The stakes for the future of constitutional liberty and governance could scarcely be higher.
In a 2013 report commissioned by President Obama’s administration entitled “Liberty and Security in a Changing World”, government officials acknowledged the long struggle to balance public order with individual rights:
“Brandeis wrote, ‘The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings, and of his intellect. . . . They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations.’ This protection is indispensable to the protection of security, properly conceived.”
The report goes on to note:
“In a free society, one that is genuinely committed to self-government,… people are secure in the sense that they need not fear that their conversations and activities are being watched, monitored, questioned, interrogated, or scrutinized. Citizens are free from this kind of fear. In unfree societies, by contrast, there is no right to be let alone, and people struggle to organize their lives to avoid the government’s probing eye. The resulting unfreedom jeopardizes, all at once, individual liberty, self-government, economic growth, and basic ideals of citizenship.”
Yet over two centuries ago, America’s founders devised an ingenious system to disperse governmental power and provide checks against its over-accumulation in any one branch or at any one level. As James Madison assured in Federalist 45, the powers of the proposed federal government would be “few and defined” while those reserved to states and localities would be “numerous and indefinite.” This carefully calibrated balance enabled the young republic to grow and thrive as a beacon of liberty to the world.
However, as the federal government has metastasized over decades, swallowing state and local authorities in its wake, that framework has badly eroded. Today, Washington sits as a nearly omnipotent ruler over vast swaths of American life. Its dictates shape everything, from the lightbulbs we can buy to the toilets we can flush. No area escapes its growing reach, even the most personal realms of healthcare, family life, and religious conviction.
This contradicts both the Constitution and common sense. As Nobel economist F.A. Hayek warned, centralized state planning inevitably fails as flawed human knowledge cannot substitute for free people pursuing their own interests. Yet in their hubris, politicians believe they can successfully coordinate immensely complex modern economies while micromanaging private lives down to the smallest detail.
The contemporary failures and waste of governmental overreach are visible across American life. Just glance at the soaring inflation, decaying public infrastructure, second-rate government schools, and skyrocketing higher education costs taxpayers now endure. Look at the tangled web of subsidies, tariffs, and regulations that benefit the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of startups and consumers.
Perhaps nowhere have the costs of unchecked government manifested more painfully than in healthcare. Federal interventions over decades so distorted markets that medical costs spiraled out of control even as services deteriorated. But Obamacare and its planned follow-up, a nationalized single-payer system, will only make things worse by putting more rules and regulations on medicine that are controlled by Washington. Likewise, for years, college tuition and home prices have gone up much faster than overall inflation thanks to a bunch of federal housing rules and subsidies.
In their arrogance, politicians now believe no challenge lies beyond their purview, no social ill they cannot cure. The Obama administration provided one of the clearest articulations of this boundless governmental conceit: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
If you take this ridiculous excuse at face value, it lets politicians control private businesses and people’s personal lives however they want. It paves the way for the creeping authoritarianism of today to become the full-blown totalitarian state control of tomorrow. Some citizens may welcome this in the misguided name of “progress” or greater efficiency and equality. However, as Reagan warned, “a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you have.” The history of 20th-century totalitarianism arose from similar utopian designs.
Here in the third decade of the 21st century, we stand at a pivotal point in history. This November’s election offers a stark binary choice – one path leads to more personal freedom, privacy, and individual flourishing, while the other heads irrevocably toward greater centralization, bureaucratization, and serfdom to all-powerful overlords in Washington.
The political and ideological differences between the two main parties make this November’s election even more important for the future of constitutional freedom. Without a doubt, this is the most important election we will ever face.