Scholar's Opinion: Opposing the Resolution "There's Too Much Government In My Life"

PHOTO: This Week Great Debate

Brian Balogh is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. The following paper is in opposition to the resolution, "There's Too Much Government in My Life" debated on "This Week" on Sunday, Dec. 18.

"There's Too Much Government In My life:" That was the resolution skillfully discussed in the inaugural "Great American Debate," sponsored by the University of Virginia's Miller Center and aired on ABC's "This Week with Christiane Amanpour." Predictably, Congressman Paul Ryan and pundit George Will, arguing the conservative position, stressed the magical qualities of the market. Congressman Barney Frank and former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich – team liberal – stressed the many intrusive and costly elements of government that conservatives support – from a hyperactive military to social regulations that penetrate deep into the bedroom.

Surprisingly, neither side invoked much history. Yet a quick history quiz reveals that we are debating the wrong question. That is because the common ground that Americans have historically occupied is akin to a traffic circle located at the intersection of government, the market, and civil society. Whether citizens have arrived via State Street, Market Street, or United Way, they have consistently reached their destination safely and swiftly by merging, not swerving to the right or left.

Now the quiz:

Question: How did freedom-loving, rights-bearing citizens in the early republic get their news? And how much did they pay for it?

Answer: The U.S. Postal Service and just about nothing.

The Postal Service was the CNN of its time. The USPS heavily subsidized the distribution of newspapers, shifting the cost to those customers who mailed private correspondence. Citizens and elected officials alike heartily endorsed these subsidies in order to create a union of informed citizens. The results shocked French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, who noted that there was "an astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers among these savage woods."

True or False? A man's home is his castle: private property was a sacred right in America.

False.

Courts, especially in the nineteenth century, regularly settled the tension between owners of private property and the community's best interests in favor of the community. Safety and eminent domain trumped individual private interest more often than not. In 1788 a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice, noting that "the safety of the people is a law above all others," confirmed the common practice of tearing down private homes, simply because they might stand in the path of a fire. To act otherwise would risk fueling the fire. The courts repeatedly favored the efficient use of property, as measured by the return to the entire community, when it came to riparian rights or the use of new technology.

True or False? Private markets were more effective than public provision.

Neither.

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