Should the Government Lead Social Movements?

For the first hundred-and-fifty-odd years of the United States’ existence, it was a land of rugged individuals. The nation was founded on the idea that “that government is best that governs least,” and self-reliance and self-respect were the defining characteristics of Americans.

But over the last eighty years or so Americans have been progressively allowing the government to play a bigger and bigger role in their lives. With the passage of Obamacare in 2010, Americans have granted to the national government the power to control their access to health care. If the Democrats’ various “Cap and Trade” proposals are ever put into effect, we will have given the government the power to control our access to the fuel that makes our modern lifestyle possible.

But even more frightening than the government’s assumption of these new legal powers is its assumption of a leading role in changing the values and beliefs of ordinary Americans.

Before the 1990’s social change in the US was always intiated in the private sector, and the government followed the lead of the people.

The creation of time zones, for example, was instituted by the railroad companies in 1883, then embraced by the people at large, and lastly accepted by the government. 

In the early twentieth century a broad based social movement for the prohibition of alcohol gained the support of such a large majority of the American people that the US Congress and various state legislatures had no choice but to pass the Eighteenth Amendment. Thirteen years later, public sentiment had swung so far in the opposite direction that the government had to react to the public will by passing the Twenty-First Amendment, repealing the Eighteenth Amendment and making liquor legal again.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, the Civil Rights Movement was led by the American people, and only reluctantly accepted by government. Televised images of Bull Conner’s policemen mistreating peaceful black protesters crystalized public opinion on the subject in 1963, and in reaction to the public pressure the government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a year later.

Even the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960’s and 70’s began among the public at large. Changes in public attitudes about adultery, prostitution, and other forms of sexual promiscuity began among the American people. State governments eventually reacted to the new reality with “no fault” divorce laws, et cetera. No politician of that time would have had the arrogance to think that he should dictate to the people what they should think about social issues.

Even President Franklin Roosevelt, who had no scruples about spending the people’s tax dollars on propaganda in support of his own administration, never tried to re-engineer people’s attitudes about gender roles, or the definition of marraige, or religion.

But over the last twenty years or so the courts and legislatures have taken on the role of Instructor of Morals, trying to lead the supposedly backward and primitive masses away from their old-fashioned attitudes about things like marriage, and into a brave new world of Political Correctness. On the issue of re-defining marriage, for example, the people have been notoriously recalcitrant, and the supposedly “elite” people who populate state legislatures and federal courts have felt the need to intervene.

Ballot initiatives on the subject of “gay marriage” have come before the voters in most of the states, and in every case the voters have rejected the idea. This has happened even in socially liberal states like California and Massechusetts. There would be no such thing as gay marriage if the American people were allowed to take the lead on the issue. Yet governments continue to put it on the books, apparently hoping that a legal sanction will lead over time to a societal sanction.

Similarly, liberals in the federal government have been intent on using the US military as a proving ground for the idea that women and men should fill identical roles in society. By putting women in harm’s way in combat, left-leaning social engineers like President Obama apparently hope to teach the rest of us that men and women are cut out for identical roles in society.

We can all disagree about which social movements are good and which are bad. As a conservative, I tend to think that the sexual revolution did more harm than good for our society, even though it was a popular movement that started in the private sector. But all of us should be uncomfortable with the idea that the government taking control not only our access to things like health care and fuel, but even our attitudes about things like marriage and gender.

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