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There’s good news for Americans who believe in a smaller federal government: The law of unintended consequences is alive and well in the Obama age.
Take health care, for example. The intended consequence of the campaign for Democratic health reform has been to expand government into the most intimate, most consequential parts of our lives.
But the unintended consequence has been to drive more Americans away from the idea of government-run health care and toward more personal responsibility. The latest polling data from Gallup show a stunning, 22-point shift among Americans away from believing that government is responsible for health care toward believing that individuals are responsible for their own health care.
What’s more, this shift against government health care has actually been fueled by the campaign to federalize it. In 2006, 69 percent of Americans believed government was responsible for health care. Today, that number is 47 percent.
The unintended but nonetheless building backlash against big, centralized government isn’t just confined to health care, and it isn’t just confined to Washington.
In Baton Rouge, La., last week voters by a wide margin rejected a tax increase to pay for more city spending. The entire Democratic establishment, the media and the business establishment tried to sell the higher taxes as hope and change for Baton Rouge, but the voters weren’t buying. Thanks in large part to an opposition campaign mounted by the Baton Rouge Tea Party, 64 percent of voters rejected the new taxes.
This comes on the heels of the historic rejection of higher taxes and bigger government that California voters delivered earlier this year. In a state that gave Barack Obama a 24-point margin of victory in 2008, California voters in May rejected a series of taxing and spending measures by 63 percent-plus majorities. Another initiative, which would limit elected officials’ salaries in times of deficits, passed with 74 percent of the vote.
Add this all together and it points to a strong message being sent by the American people:
At a time when politicians are telling us that only government can solve our problems–a time when government itself seems to be the most important constituency of many politicians–Americans are simply saying, “No.” No more. They are a rejecting big, expensive, distant government.
The alternative to big government isn’t no government, as critics of small-government conservatives would have you believe. It’s something increasing numbers of Americans are calling “localism.”
Localism is federalism, but with the benefit of hard experience. America’s Founders established federalism–creating a federal government with clearly defined, and thus constitutionally limited, powers and reserving the remainder of governmental power to the states or the people–to maximize individual freedom and prevent a central government from creating for itself ever expanding powers over the people.
But the political establishment in Washington and politicians from Sacramento to Albany to Baton Rouge don’t like federalism. They have tried to sell the American people on the idea that today’s challenges are too complex and too pressing to be left to the states or to the people. These challenges, we are assured, require bigger and more expensive federal or state governments.
Localism is a direct reaction to this. The past couple months have seen the most decisive shift in generations back to the original American view of the role of the federal government. It is a return to the constitutional understanding that powers not belonging to the federal government should reside in the most local possible center of responsibility.
Sometimes that’s individual Americans and their families. Other times it’s local or state government.
In all cases, it’s a decisive rejection of the notion being peddled in Washington that self-government in the 21st century is too complicated to be left to the people.
The irony is that this great awakening of personal and local responsibility is in response to a concerted campaign to convince us that the opposite is true: That the hope and change we’ve been waiting for must come from enlightened politicians and governments, not from ourselves.
Big government is being sold in Washington today as something new. The unintended consequence is that Americans are returning to something old: government of, by, and for the people.
Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI.
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