Monday, May 25, 2009

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The time I’m talking about was 1776, and the good idea was a compartmentalized government with three separate branches to provide checks and balances. The reasoning behind this was to make it difficult to change the status quo with quick and easy new legislation, because the founding fathers distrusted the prospect of too much government. At the end of the Eighteenth Century, this was the perfect form of government for a new nation on a new continent with seemingly unlimited resources, insulated from the rest of the world by two vast oceans. The government, small by design, was there mostly to provide a national defense, to forge foreign treaties, and to intervene in differences between the states.

Things change. The founding fathers could never have imagined today’s America. Electronic telecommunications have bridged the oceans with instantaneous information flow. Carbon emissions produced on this continent can raise the sea level at the margin of every continent. The earth’s largest religion, Islam, has spawned a militant faction bent on the destruction of America, and the means exist for these radicals to achieve their goals. For an entire century, America led the world with its civic-institutional progress, but now the rest of the developed world has overtaken us and currently leads us with its public education and healthcare. The free-market system of capitalism has degenerated into a modern feudalism where working serfs serve only to enrich an obscenely wealthy upper class, and now even that hideous system is broken.

The thing about all this that’s most alarming, however, is that every one of these dynamics has the capability to change parameters in a short period of time. In the case of 9/11 and the Wall Street meltdown, change occurred almost instantaneously, and the government of the founding fathers, ponderous by design, was simply not up to the task of meeting the challenges in a timely manner.If the shortcomings of a sluggish government would be a surprise to the founding fathers, then even more surprising would be the two party system that has evolved, with Democrats and Republicans, calcified around polar ideologies into an American equivalent of the Shites and Sunnis in Iraq.

Then again, come to think of it, maybe the founding fathers never expected the government they created to last beyond 250 years.

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