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October 17th, 2017

Insight

The missing middle

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Oct. 1, 2015

 The missing middle

Got a problem? Hillary Clinton will fix it, or rather she's working on a government program that will. The other day she noticed that Obamacare, this administration's Signature Achievement, hadn't achieved enough. For example, the cost of prescription drugs was "skyrocketing," and that's only "one of many issues that need to be addressed." Never fear: Another new subsidy or three will set everything right. Till the next glitch, which the next new entitlement program will straighten out.

Last time it was the size of student debt that caught Hillary Clinton's attention. Still working to pay off all those college loans? No problem. "No family and no student should have to borrow to pay tuition at a public college or university," she told an audience at Exeter High School in New Hampshire. "And everyone who has student debt should be able to refinance it at lower rates."

How pay for all that? Just raise taxes on The Rich -- and she stuck to much the same line in Little Rock the other day, when she stopped at Philander Smith College to garner applause for it. It's become her signature fallback by now: Whenever her presidential campaign flags, she just offers people more government benefits.

It's not just the cost of these fixes that's worrisome, though it is. Nor the ease with which she assumes The Rich will pay for them without inviting the usual unintended consequences, like depriving the economy of the capital it needs to grow. It's that she looks only to government to solve our problems. Didn't there used to be many more of us active in organizations dedicated to helping folks with their problems without waiting for government to solve them?

They called Ronald Reagan the Great Communicator -- maybe because he had some great ideas worth communicating. One of them was that "America is more than government on the one hand and helpless individuals on the other," and that within "our families, neighborhoods, schools and places of work, let us continue reaching out, renewing our spirit of friendship, community service and caring for each other -- a spirit that flows like a deep and powerful river through the history of our nation."

This web of intermediate institutions -- churches, charities, civic clubs, fraternities and sororities, small-loan societies that specialize in helping folks who want to start their own business, groups that raise money for single parents who want to go back to school but need scholarships ... they all still exist (even if they're fading away) but they never seem to figure in some politicians' plans. Instead, their one-size-fits-all solution to the country's problems boils down to just more and more government.

Yes, the Hillary Clintons and Barack Obamas do enlist powerful political and economic interests in their programs -- teachers' unions, for example, and those that consist solely of public employees. But between big labor, big business and big government, there no longer seems to be room in our leaders' calculations for those smaller, intimate associations, from Little League to Rotary Clubs, that Edmund Burke called the "little platoons" of society.

Robert Nisbet was a philosopher even if he was a sociologist -- a description that could fit some other scholars whose work needs reviving, from Ibn Khaldun to Alexis de Tocqueville. It was Professor Nisbet who reminded us, in his classic work "The Quest for Community," that the task of a political democracy is to harmonize the varied group identities which exist in society, not eliminate them. So there would be no rival to one centralized government that would meet all our needs and desires -- from free medical care to college scholarships.

This country's founders understood that the best way to control power was to divide it. They provided a constitutional separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial, not to mention state and federal) so that a single government could not exercise unrivaled control over our lives. Too many of our politicians have forgotten that lesson. And not just our politicians. There will always be those clamoring for another government program to "help" them by making them more dependent rather than independent.

Back in 1995, Robert Putnam noted how various American civic groups had shrunk in membership and influence. Consider the withering away of all kinds of voluntary associations -- PTAs and the League of Women Voters, the Boy Scouts and Red Cross, Elks and Masons, and on down the line. His book "Bowling Alone" attracted considerable attention at the time of its publication in 2000 -- and merited it.

Why use what's happened to bowling as symptomatic of what's happening to the American social fabric? Because even though the number of people who still bowl may have increased in the aggregate, the number of Americans who bowl together in leagues has shrunk. And we've lost one more way to interact with one another on our own. And diminished our social capital.

Government does indeed offer ways to solve problems no other institution can -- like providing for the common defense and assuring the rule of law. But not the only way. And when we forget that, and risk creating an atomized society in which each of us is answerable to one centralized government and nothing else, freedom itself is endangered. Along with other values Americans should hold dear, like self-reliance. Not to mention reliance on a Higher Authority, aka freedom of conscience.

It's a dangerous thing, a monopoly of power, whether that power is exercised by church or state. Or by a political party or any other single source. Let's not be afraid of dividing and diversifying power. Let's embrace it. It's the key to freedom.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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