In the immediate aftermath of the Representative Gabrielle Giffords' shooting in Tucson, Arizona, the left predictably began pointing fingers at their normal targets on the right—Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin—claiming that they inspired the primary suspect, Jared Loughner, to attempt to kill her. After the facts began to emerge and seemed to indicated that Loughner had no real political orientation, the left quickly began to obfuscate their error by transitioning to generalities decrying the rising tide of incivility in our public discourse. With calls that echoed GHW Bush’s call for a ‘kinder and gentler nation,’ the left derided the right for its ‘lock and load rhetoric’. The right responded with historical examples of how uncivil political discourse has often been in the past.
The one thing both sides seem to miss is that the growth of government, itself, will cause a systemic increase in incivility in our public discourse.
If one thinks about it for just a moment it is clear that with nearly every new law and every new regulation, decisions are taken away from the individual and are transitioned into the political arena. Once politicized in this way, decisions which were solely made by the individual, family, group or business, now must be ‘won’ via public agitation and action. When those precluded choices are considered important to the affected individuals, public incivility will often result.
Government monopoly institutions are one cause of incivility. ‘Public’ (Government) education is a prime example. Parents whose moral system includes the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman object strenuously when the curriculum of their children’s school includes books such as ‘King & King’. Likewise, parents who believe that ‘tolerance’ is an overriding moral imperative might object vehemently when the Ten Commandments are displayed in public schools. Neither of these examples would have been brought into the public arena if schools were private and money was not extorted from citizens to fund public institutions. Vouchers would accomplish the same end—providing a high-school education to all Americans—but would not entail political or moral indoctrination. When government directly provides a service via monopoly institutions, as opposed to simply providing funding, this type of politicization—and the resultant incivility—is inevitable.
Collective decision-making is a second cause of incivility. Decision-making is a zero-sum game: every decision that is brought into the public arena through law or regulation is taken away from private individuals. The explosion of lobbying is a good example of this. As government grows, more and more decisions migrate to the public sector. Time, effort and expense must increase to influence the decision-makers. When decisions are made by individuals, that means advertising, incentives, etc. When the decisions are made by politicians we get lobbying, bribes, etc. As government grows and takes more decisions away from the individual, individuals and their proxies must become more active in the political realm--with the inevitable consequence of greater conflict and incivility.
Legislation or regulation of morality is also a cause of public incivility. Moral decisions are some of the most personal and private decisions individuals make. Historically in America, they are also the constraints on individual behavior most egregiously imposed on other individuals. As far back as 17th century colonial America one of the two overriding causes of rebellion was 'freedom of conscience'*. Blue laws, sodomy laws, prostitution laws, gambling laws, drug laws, marriage laws are all examples of current law which are wholly or partially derived from specific moral codes. When a politically powerful group co-opts the coercive power of government to enforce its singular moral view, it not only causes incivility, but literally creates criminals and destroys respect for the rule of law. Often times in history it has led to rebellion and revolution.
Finally, a word needs to be said of the enabling laws which set the stage for greater subsumption of private decision-making. ObamaCare is a prime example of this effect. ObamaCare nearly completely transmutes the funding of individual healthcare into a public good. As a public good, cost control criteria prompts government to regulate a vast, new array of individual behaviors. What we eat, our exercise choices, and personal environmental preferences all become subject to government dictate. England, with its National Health Service shows how far this can go.
All of the above factors somewhat overlap, and few can be taken in isolation. The single unifying characteristic is the shift of individual choices into the public arena: the growth of government. When thousands of pages of laws and regulations are added every year, people must become active in the political decision-making process to insure their preferred choices remain available. When those choices directly conflict, incivility will result. Simply stated, the more we legislate and regulate, the more issues will migrate from private choices into public arguments.
So if the left really wants to increase civility in our public discourse—which current events in Wisconsin and elsewhere don’t seem to indicate is their true goal—they, too, need to press for a more limited government.