Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Hints of big government

By Ben Rudnick

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Two recent articles have reminded me of the perils of government: not just democratic, parliamentary, socialist or communist government, but all government. Any government constituted by people is vulnerable to all the foibles of our imperfect species, and one of our most pernicious faults is our inexhaustible belief that we are smarter than everyone else.

Case in point…according to a November 15th story by Robert Watts posted on the TimesOnline website, the British government is preparing to implement an inspection system for private homes to “ensure that parents are protecting their children from household accidents.” In short, local councils in each town will gather data on homeowners to ascertain where children might be at risk, and will be empowered to supervise the installation of safety devices, such as smoke detectors and hot water temperature regulators.

I can appreciate the impulse to keep the kiddies safe, but we are not talking about some campaign to let parents know about devices that can help prevent their children from falling prey to accidents around the house – or a program to assist them in installing such contraptions – but rather an actual invasion of the state into the homes of its citizens in order to force them to comply with a government mandate.

Ok, so that’s England, not us, but closer to home is a November 15th article in the Washington Post revealing that the Obama Administration is getting ready to propose a federal takeover of America’s public transportation systems. This is perhaps not so sinister as Britain’s intrusion directly into the homes of its people, but it stems from the same we-know-better-than-you impulse that drives the nanny-staters in London.

In this case, Obama believes that managers in Washington can do a better job of regulating the operation of the subway systems of Boston, New York or Chicago than can the experts who have worked at the local level for their entire careers. What is truly ironic in this case is the fact that this move is in response to the fatal crash on Washington D.C.’s red line in June of this year. Yet, Washington’s Metro system is already regulated by the federal government in its role as managers of the District of Columbia.

I possess a strong libertarian impulse, but I am also a realist. I understand that there are some aspects of society that demand the attentions of a strong federal government. I know that the Post Office could not function without centralized management from Washington, that the need for nationally uniform air transport regulations calls for an agency like the FAA, and that there are many other issues that only the federal government is equipped to address. However, I also strongly believe that our leaders in Washington have lost sight of the checks on their power that common sense – and the Constitution – used to dictate.

This being a kind of sermon, it would not be complete without a bit of “scripture,” and I have just the thing…

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”

As many of you clamor for government to do something about our health care issues you should keep Jefferson’s quote in mind. I cannot argue that there is not a need for some government action to address the issues we face in the cost and availability of health insurance, but no matter how benignly motivated, giving over more power to Washington bureaucrats is always a risky proposition. There are a number of other areas in which the present administration is pursuing centralized and heavy-handed action, and I urge a similar caution in these matters.

In more modern terms, Jefferson’s words should simply caution us to consider carefully the powers we endow to the government, especially the big one in Washington D.C. It may very well be that some aspects of the problem can only be addressed by the kind of one-size-fits-all solutions the federal government is capable of. However, it is clear that there are many reasons why Americans have trouble getting insurance. The diversity of the causes demands that more responsive, market-driven, and local government solutions be considered before resorting to the feds’ “big guns.”

I was not writing for the Collegian back then, so you’ll just have to take my word that I was equally critical of the ways in which the Bush Administrations grew the power of the federal government – this in not a matter of partisan ideology. The founders knew that the only way to limit government’s power was to keep it as small as possible. The Constitution has to be flexible enough to allow for changing times, but we must always keep the ideal of smaller and more responsive government as near to our hearts as we can.

Thus endeth the sermon.

Ben Rudnick is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]


4 Responses to “Hints of big government”

  1. Michael Röhm (Foley) on November 25th, 2009 12:39 am

    Amen and amen.

    In any cases involving government, it really is a case of trying to determine the lesser of two evils.


  2. Ed on November 27th, 2009 10:49 am

    This is a case where the media has been negligent.

    The NTSB does not have law enforcement powers. It does, however, hold press conferences and issue reports. And NTSB has been highly critical of several municipal transportation authorities (the DC Metro in particular) for ignoring its recommendations.

    Where the h*** was the media on this? Official agency says something is unsafe and needs to be fixed, that is not a complicated story to write. Quote report, ask transport folk for comment, note that you tried to get comment in your story, go have beer. Simple.

    And this was not the first runaway train that the DC Metro had, so where the h*** was the media on that one? The Boston Herald may be tabloid but they sure were on top of driver’s texting.

    Jefferson said that “No government should be without censors, and where the press is free, none ever will be.” What he neglected was a world where the press was just lazy….


  3. Michael Phillis on December 1st, 2009 3:25 am


    I like the wit of the article, nicely done. I have a question for you:

    You say, “What is truly ironic in this case is the fact that this move is in response to the fatal crash on Washington D.C.’s red line in June of this year. Yet, Washington’s Metro system is already regulated by the federal government in its role as managers of the District of Columbia.”

    My question to you is this: The D.C. city, while technically controlled by the federal government isn’t really controlled by the federal government. Washington D.C. has a mayor and a city government because the federal government believed that they should.

    HIstorical example. When Harry Truman was in the Senate, he was appointed to the committee that managed the District of Columbia, he asked to be removed from that committee because he thought the city could and should govern itself – which is eventually what happened.

    Ok sorry for the delay, here’s the question: Do you think that D.C. is really the best and most effective example to use when the federal government handed over their jurisdiction of D.C. largely over to local officials? This seems an odd example for a story about how there is too much federal government. D.C. is an example of it going the other way.


  4. Ben Rudnick on December 1st, 2009 11:07 am


    That’s an interesting point. You are correct that Congress has delegated its authority to manage the District of Columbia to a local city government. In addition, after further research into how the D.C. Metro Transit system is managed, it looks like this was also delegated to a local, independent agency due to the fact that the system extends into Maryland and Virginia. This clearly indicates that local management of DC’s transit system has not led to any better safety record than other public transit systems, such as Boston’s, and so it is hard dispute your point.

    Perhaps I should have said that, if the Obama Administration wants to try nationalizing local public transportation, it should begin by taking over the DC Metro System and seeing how that turns out. However, the idea that the powers that be in Washington DC can better cope with the particular circumstances of Boston’s or San Francisco’s transit systems than the local authorities who were born and raised in those locales is farcical. The problems that confront the congested and aging New York subway system are far different than those of earthquake-prone Los Angeles, and will not be more efficiently addressed by bureaucrats from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

    Thanks for the feedback.


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