Self-government in a republic of 325 million

Key Points

The present study argues that a middle way is possible. On one side, the extension of specialization in government is irreversible and certainly linked to largely beneficial trends, making it folly to strive for citizen self-government in any literal sense. Short of civilizational collapse, the government of simpler times will not be returning.
On the other side, there are serious downsides to specialization of public functions that must be vigilantly attended to by generalists. Representative government as instantiated in a strong legislature is our best chance at some kind of meaningful self-government and it should be defended as such.
As we have inherited it, the Constitution is a major resource for this defense—at least if Congress can be made to play its intended role. Realizing limits on the executive and judicial branches through an assertion of Congress’s constitutional prerogatives would therefore be the best way to serve the cause of self-government in America today.

It is quixotic to assume that we might do away with the administrative state and its experts and return American government to its nineteenth-century form—let alone that we might pursue an even more radically participatory form of Jeffersonian democracy. It is pusillanimous and anti-republican, not to mention mean-spirited, to sneer at the importance of common citizens’ judgments in holding the bearers of state power to account.

We must therefore perform a balancing act with regard to our ideal of self-government. We must neither take it too literally, such that we see the presence of any specialization or division of labor as inherently suspect nor allow ourselves to bandy the words about as empty rhetoric. To the extent we resist exaggeration, we will be better able to take the principle seriously when embracing it is the appropriate action. Self-government should absolutely retain its place in our pantheon of civic values and faith in its worthiness should be cherished. When there are institutional design choices to be made, we should seek to promote self-government at the margin, notwithstanding the protests of well-qualified experts. But we should not pretend to monotheistic devotion, lest we look like awful hypocrites.

Press release: Self-government in a republic of 325 million: Is all of this just so much BS?

Image credit: Pamela Au

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