Magazine July 20, 2009, Issue

Jacksonian Democracy

On Sept. 11, 2001, about an hour after the planes hit the twin towers, Jo Moore, a senior adviser to Britain’s “secretary of state for transport, local government, and the regions,” turned away from the TV and fired off a departmental e-mail: “It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.” I’m not sure where Ms. Moore is these days, but June 25 and all the following week were even better days to get out anything you wanted to bury.

The House of Representatives passed the Waxman-Markey “cap and trade” bill, which dramatically distorts the market in a way that will imperil economic recovery, and increases the bureaucratic burden on already-overregulated American businesses, and makes us uncompetitive with foreign companies to a degree that makes Great Depression–inducing protectionism all but inevitable, and is also an affront to federalism, weakens your property rights in very basic ways, and costs you real money.

And nobody cared. Because Michael Jackson had died. He was an, er, “icon,” in the coy evasion the Jackstream Media settled on almost instantly.

But boy, he had it all over Waxwing-Markup, whoever the hell they are. Had al-Qaeda wanted to catch our eye, they’d have had to fly a jet into the Jackson catafalque and hope that Rosie O’Donnell queried whether it was possible for fire to melt plastic. If you switched on and heard the words “health care,” it was only because someone had a new rumor about Jacko’s doctor. As Mr. Jackson himself once warbled:

I don’t wanna think

I don’t wanna learn

I don’t wanna do anything . . .

Sounds good to me. Two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, that French bloke who toured Jacksonian America (Andrew, I mean), foresaw our descent into Jacksonian America (Michael, I mean), fretting that the citizens of a self-governing republic would decay into “an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” But even the worst journeyman hack peddling a fin de la civilisation potboiler might find the juxtaposition of the rulers ramming through a massive power grab and tax hike while the oblivious proletariat is feasting on round-the-clock coverage of a self-mutilated misfit of dubious sexual predilections a bit too crude to be plausible. But apparently it works: bread and circus freaks.

At such moments, democracy in America (in Tocqueville’s phrase) seems alarmingly like the zombies in the late Mr. Jackson’s “Thriller” video: It can still stagger about with a certain mesmeric energy but it’s ever more the living dead. As is now traditional, our legislators had not read the bill they voted for. However, for once they had a decent excuse: A 300-page amendment to the original pithy 1,000-page bill was introduced at three in the morning on the day of passage and, alas, because Big Government has now effortlessly outpaced the nimble typing fingers of congressional stenographers, there was no actual physical copy of the bill in existence at the time the House voted for it.

Is that even legal? To pass a law that’s not in writing? Hey, relax. Someone probably tweeted the high points. It’ll be out there somewhere. The White House asked Ashton Kutcher to tweet National HIV Testing Day, so I’m sure they asked Lady Gaga or Perez Hilton to tweet National Unread Unwritten 1,000-Page Bill Day. No taxation without Twitterization!

If George III had put the tea clause 247 pages into a 300-page amendment to a 1,000-page bill, he might still have the colonies. Wherever he is now, he must be laughing his head off. Republican government is impossible in an age where not only are the bills too long for a reasonably engaged citizen to read, not only are they too long for a legislator to read, but they’re too long to write down before they’re passed into law. We just have to trust our rulers, and they just have to trust whichever aides negotiated whichever boondoggles with whichever lobbyists. The Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman is certainly very trusting, damning those who voted against the bill as guilty of “treason — treason against the planet.”

There’s an interesting phrase. The planet isn’t a jurisdiction, so one can’t technically owe allegiance to it, although those who affect a citoyen du monde mien like Krugman and Obama are happy to give the impression they do. Imagine how long it’ll be if we ever reach that blessed day when “the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world” comes together to pass a Waxman-Markey bill for the entire planet. It’ll be way longer than 1,300 pages! And they’ll need translations, too!

At one point, that looked the way to bet. But I’m not so sure. A few years ago, Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore wrote a book called The Size of Nations, pointing out that of the ten richest countries in the world only four have populations above 1 million: the United States (260 million back then), Switzerland (7 million), Norway (4 million), Singapore (3 million). All the rest are small jurisdictions with few people. This is an age of little countries: The big ones (the Soviet Union) and not-so-big ones (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia) have gone belly-up, and in their wake have bloomed Latvia, Slovakia, and Montenegro. Apart from anything else, small nations have less need for the industrial-scale buying off of ethnic, regional, and other interests. Messrs. Alesina and Spolaore observed en route that, if America were as centrally governed as France, it would have broken up long ago.

The president and the Congress seem determined to test that proposition. In Michael Jackson terms, we’re in the “Bad” phase: gargantuanism for its own sake.

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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