Does America need Thomas Jefferson’s limited government progressivism?
Since 1816, there have been more than a few changes to both America’s’ federal laws and even the Constitution itself. In all likelihood, Jefferson and the other founders of the United States would scarcely recognize the nation they sacrificed to establish.
The states, intended by America’s founders to enjoy governing primacy in all but a few enumerated areas of political power, now find themselves as both dependents of the federal government’s financial largess and frequent subordinates to its authority.
At America’s founding, the federal government had few meaningful resources, very little infrastructure and was, by all accounts, the very definition of limited government. It was created by states that saw mutual benefit in ceding some of their autonomy and authority in well-defined areas for their common good.
Many Americans view a return to the founders’ model of public governance as a proven formula for American success and prosperity. Unfortunately, that affinity for America’s founding is easily characterized and confused with a desire to literally return to the social and cultural norms of a much earlier period in American history.
A federalist form of government under which states enjoy a high degree of self-governance is not the enemy of progress. In fact, America’s federalist design is far more innovative than the emerging one-size-fits-all big government approach, because it gives citizens the choice to both reward and penalize state governments for the public policy choices they make.
The emergence of a powerful federal government has mitigated the consequences of many state policy decisions and removed some choices from the states entirely. At the same time, federal action creates a convenient political excuse for state laws and regulations that seem to produce poor results.
Many Americans might be surprised to find that Jefferson, an ardent critic of consolidated federal power, understood the need for American governments to change over time.
In the same letter in which Jefferson expressed his reluctance to frequently modify laws, he nevertheless noted the importance of accepting and embracing change.
“[L]aws and institutions must go hand-in-hand with the progress of the human mind,” wrote Jefferson. “As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”
Jefferson appreciated the need for institutional flexibility that accommodates change, but he rejected the idea that a strong federal government was best situated to achieve that goal. His unique perspective may have been lost in the annals of history, but America needs to again understand that restoring the intended role of the states in our government is the right recipe for progress.