Of Freedom and Federals

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

News Flash, Washington:  The national government sometimes gets it wrong.

Another News Flash, Elsewhere:  So do the States.

Of course, this is no news to anyone, rather old news to everyone.  We all know that the national government is neither perfectly right nor wrong.  The same is true for state governments.  All are staffed by human beings, like you and me, with the similar packages of wisdom and foolishness.

For nearly two decades I worked in the U.S. Senate for a very wise man.  I once heard him say that when he came to Washington he was frustrated at how little one person could get done.  He said he soon came to rejoice in the fact.  Yes, it is hard for one person to achieve the good that he envisions, but it is even harder for one person to impose on everyone else the good that he envisions.

The founders of the nation did not seek to perfect mankind.  They left that for God, as flawed humans cannot create perfect humans.  For now God has left governments to imperfect people (though He is willing to provide as much wisdom as people are willing to accept).  The wisdom of the founders, thousands of miles away from other nations, but drawing upon thousands of years of history, was to create a system of government that did not rest upon the wisdom and foolishness of one individual or even a small cadre of them.

The founders arrived at a system of government for the new nation that neither guaranteed nor expected officials to get it all right.  It was designed to make it harder for them all to get it all wrong.  Moreover, the founders worked to limit the field of that government, so that as much as possible of the getting things right and wrong was left to the people themselves in their myriad of daily activities, far too complex for a government to manage.

The arrangement divided governing responsibilities among many hands.  States have their responsibilities, which they share with local governments.  The national government has its share of duties and powers to be applied where appropriate for a national sphere.  Those powers are further divided among three interdependent branches, the executive, legislative, and judicial.  I say “interdependent,” because neither was given enough power to operate without involvement with the other two.

Impasse arises, frequently, because schemes for government to govern too much wreck upon the shoals of the diversity of our people and the multiplicity of their needs and preferences.  Such impasse is not a sign of inefficient government but of our system of government efficiently reminding us when it is trying to overreach, going beyond government’s competence.

The founders formed their plan as they realized that it was the only way to govern a nation so geographically broad, increasingly populous, and already socially diverse.  As the 13 states have become 50 from sea to sea, and the several million have become several hundred million, it is even truer today.  There are things that governments must do.  There are many more that need to be left to the governed.

In recent months we have witnessed waves of expanded government restrictions, probing the limits of government wisdom and power.  Space here will not allow an evaluation of the successes and failures, or the effect on individual freedom.

I rejoice in this federal system of government that allows for a diversity of approaches and accommodation of a diversity of conditions.  In my view, the governor where I live has gotten more wrong than right and is out of step with his state’s conditions.  I find the contrast of other examples a source of hope.  The purpose of dividing governmental power is to allow the exposure of mistakes and thereby preserve and promote individual freedom.

The division of error in our system offers hope of relief and recourse from error. It still leaves room, as well, for individuals to get it right and when they get it wrong to learn from the errors, with the freedom to try again and do better.

I will tattle, that the Senator for whom I worked for so long sometimes got it wrong.  Having been a college professor, he told us that we learned so much by working for him that we should pay tuition.  We did not agree.  He did not press the point.

Parting News Flash, New York:  The United Nations gets it wrong almost all the time.  Details, daily.

About Wayne Abernathy
I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I am the husband of one wife, the father of 5 children, and grandfather of 14 (and counting). In my career I have served on the staff of the U.S. Senate for some 20 years, including as staff director of the Senate Banking Committee. For just over 2 years I was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Institutions. Just recently, I retired from the American Bankers Association, where for 15 years I was an Executive Vice President, for financial institutions policy and regulatory affairs. I am most comfortable at home, where I like to read and write.

One Response to Of Freedom and Federals

  1. BRIAN GORE says:

    This is all good, but I’m really impressed by this insight:

    The purpose of dividing governmental power is to allow the exposure of mistakes and thereby preserve and promote individual freedom.

    We really seem to measure success by how much government “gets done” by way of passing legislation, etc., with little argument. We somehow want the parties of government to agree and get along. Getting along yes, but agreeing well, the above doesn’t really work if one set of like-minded people just sit around and agree all day. Especially when one they are agreeing about may be “wrong” (whatever that really means today?)!

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