08/09/2013 12:37 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

Can the Federal Government Control Itself?

Americans have always had a healthy distrust of government. It's in our political DNA. Sometimes distrust goes too far, withdrawing from public officials the capacity to act and making good people shun government service. Looking at current levels of distrust with the government in Washington, it would be easy to conclude that this is one of those times. Our national government seems immobilized by distrust. Criticism has pushed out civility. Political parties are far too homogenous, extreme and polarized. Compromise seems a sign not of strength but of weakness. The presidency has a pulpit without the bully. The power to get anything done seems so divided that progress is impossible.

Yet we should not dismiss the possibility that there is another message in all this. James Madison said famously in Federalist #51 that "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." Our current gridlock - and distrust of government - may also be the result of our concern that government is not controlling itself.

On the political right, this is most evident in the actions of the Tea Party. Their manta of limited government, a "return to the Constitution," and opposition to government spending and debt is a direct attack on the size, power, and scope of the federal government. What those on the left call obstructionism is to the Tea Party a return to an earlier era when the federal government did far less. If you are concerned that the federal government is too powerful, then making it hard for it to do anything is a sign of success, not a problem. The federal government has not been able to pass a budget or agree on how to manage the deficit. The result has been reduced spending and sequestration. It has also been cutting back social programs, ignoring immigration reform, and by default sending such issues as climate change and gun control back to the states.

On the political left, the evidence is harder to come by, but it is there. Anger at the scope and sweep of the NSA's data collection methods has come from the left - perhaps even more so than the right. The extent of the government's classification and secrecy apparatus and its military reach have also been concerns of the left. Anger at the IRS for possibly targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status seemed rather like a karmic payback to the right among many liberals, but they got concerned when evidence emerged that the IRS had also previously used "progressives" as a screening label. We should remember that liberals, when the Republicans controlled the White House, were very concerned about the seemingly "uncontrolled" power of the Bush Administration in regard to everything from detainee treatment to launching pre-emptive wars to signing statements that acted like laws passed by Congress were mere guidelines that the president was free to ignore. Liberals may be learning that when you give power to the federal government for things you want it to do, that grant of power may, without much difficulty, be used for things you had not intended.

None of this is to suggest that we are better off with the gridlock and distrust that block progress on important issues. But that result may be telling us more than just that liberals and conservatives hate each other. They may both be concerned as well that the federal government, in any hands if you are a conservative or libertarian, and in the "wrong" hands if you are a liberal, is just too powerful.

It's worth noting that the Framers of our republic - including even such advocates of a strong national government as Alexander Hamilton - would probably be shocked at the scope of what the federal government does today. National defense, foreign affairs, the courts, the postal service, and roads and canals - supported by excise taxes - is what they thought about as the extent of federal power. Times change and needs with it. Returning the federal government to anything like the power it had in the eighteenth century - in a world that is globally competitive and continually dangerous - is, thankfully, as inconceivable as it would be stupid.

At the same time, we may be coming to realize that as we have ceded more power to the federal government, we have lost as well as gained. Power will almost always seek to increase itself. When elected and appointed officials - with the best of intentions - just want to do a better job, the avenue for achieving that will most often be to increase their access to resources and the levers with which to put those resources to use.

Beyond the over-reach that power can produce, too much federal government power can lead to other, if unplanned, consequences. The most obvious is distrust itself. As we have loaded the federal government down with an increasing array of expectations, it is inevitable that it will fail in meeting some of them, fostering distrust as it does so. The vagueness or complexity of many federal statutes, and the way in which resources are seldom available to match legal intent, set the federal government up for failure. Further, surveys consistently show that the more distant a government actor is from citizens, the more trust suffers. That is why trust in government is greatest at the local level, then at the state level, and least at the federal level. But centralized power also decreases both responsibility and a sense of efficacy at the periphery. As we ask the federal government to take on more, we collude in our own disempowerment and disable our ability, if not also our desire, to solve our own problems.

It may be useful to explore a variety of questions. Does the federal government have too much power and, if so, in what areas? What additional safeguards against abuse of power are needed in areas where the federal government must act? How might we empower lower levels of government so that the federal government need not be tasked with doing so much? What is our own responsibility as citizens to do more for ourselves or each other so that we may decrease the extent of what we ask government to do for us? What incentives can we create for taking back the responsibility and power we have given up?

Simply taking a meat ax to federal programs and budgets, however, is not a productive way to 'oblige the government to control itself'. If programs and policies are the trees of our national debate, power is the forest. Making the trees sicker or hacking too many of them down will, in time, destroy the forest. But deforestation has never been a way to improve the environment in which we must collectively live..