The old and new ways of governing

Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn explores in the latest edition of Imprimis crucial distinctions between America’s proper way of governance and the form governance takes today.

[L]aws in America used to be simple and beautiful. They were written with care, and citizens could read them quickly and understand their meaning. Of the four organic laws that founded America—the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Constitution of the United States—none of them was more than 4,500 words long.

The Northwest Ordinance, adopted in 1787 and passed again in 1789, contains the following beautiful sentence: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary for good government and the happiness of mankind, the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Accordingly, Congress proceeded to give 1/36 of the land in the vast Northwest Territory—including Michigan and four other states—as an endowment, controlled by the states, to support education in each township. One of the finest laws written subsequently was the Homestead Act of 1862, by which ten percent of U.S. land—over 270 million acres—passed into the hands of individual citizens. The Homestead Act was 1,320 words in length.

Compare the Northwest Ordinance and the Homestead Act—perfect examples of the older, constitutional way of governing—with the new bureaucratic way of imposing central control through rules and processes that no one can understand. Compare them, for instance, to the Affordable Care Act, which when it was passed in 2010—and this does not include the countless rules and regulations it has generated over the past three years—ran to 363,086 words. This law—and in the true sense of the word it wasn’t a law at all, but something different—was not readable or comprehensible to any member of Congress who voted for it or to the citizens whose lives it was aimed at manipulating in a detailed and intrusive way. Could anything be uglier? And is it surprising, being governed in this way, that the richest nation in human history is going broke?

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