Samuel Johnson, the British wit who lived from 1709 to 1784, would have been wonderfully effective on The McLaughlin Group or any of the other Beltway journalist mud-wrestling TV shows. Johnson created soundbites that have been quoted for over two centuries, such as "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
Johnson uttered that last line in regard to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who abandoned his children and then proclaimed his love for the whole nation). But it also indicated his feeling toward those who favored a Declaration of Independence 223 years ago: An angry Johnson proclaimed, "I am willing to love all mankind, except an American."
What bothered him the most about Americans was their lack of what some today call a "sophisticated public theology," the postmodernist willingness to ignore evil. Americans thought in terms of right and wrong and were even willing to turn their backs on Britain's aristocratic, decadent capital city. (Johnson proposed in 1777 that "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.")
Colonists who had spent time in London tended to agree with that evaluation, but they gave it a different twist. One early patriot leader, John Dickinson, lived in London for four years and observed its "vicious pressures," including political bribery and world-class brothels. He then returned home to write an influential book, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, that contrasted time spent amid London's "busy scenes of life" with time enjoyed amid the simple pleasures of home and farm.
The decision to forsake London, the center of worldly power, was a hard one for Americans like Benjamin Franklin who had spent many years in full enjoyment of the capital's attractions. Not until a month before the Revolution broke out did Franklin sail home, blasting away at "the extreme corruption prevalent among all orders" of London officialdom, with "enormous salaries, pensions, perquisites, and bribes" making reform very unlikely.
Over time, the city named after George Washington displayed some tendency to imitate London. Nineteenth-century journalist Harriet Martineau described Washington as a great place for those "who love dissipation ... and those who make a study of strong minds under strong excitement." British observer Thomas Hamilton noted in his book, Men and Manners in America, that Washington had become as fine a place as London to sample "the enjoyments of social intercourse."
In the 20th century, many Americans began to see Washington as a new London. The Progressive movement shortly after 1900 and the recent "Republican Revolution" had different political aims but shared a common concern that Washington was a new center of Franklin's "extreme corruption." Lamar Alexander's one good line about Congress five years ago was, "Cut their pay and send them home."
The problem many individual conservatives face, however, is exactly that which troubled Franklin: how to walk away from the power center, as well as the pleasures of capital life. Some congressmen who came to Washington in 1995 committed to decentralization have fallen into the old, London-knows-best pattern of thinking that if they favor a particular human need or desire, they should vote to spend tax money on it. One result: Despite four years of Republican control of Congress, the federal tax burden has hit 20 percent of gross domestic product, the highest ever except in wartime.
How can Congress de-Londonize? One way is to couple votes to spend money with votes on promoting nongovernmental ways to spend it. Congress, for example, could vote that Americans provide temporary material help to single mothers trying to get off welfare. An immediate second vote could consider the means: Congress could decide between promoting contributions to a church or community-based poverty-fighting organization by offering tax credits, and requiring payment of taxes that would be sent to the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Two other mechanisms might help. Term limits make sense, but they do deprive Congress of some useful experience; a better means is the 18th-century practice called "rotation of offices," whereby a person could alternate serving and sitting out. It would also be useful to tie spending reductions directly to tax cuts. Cut $10 billion from the federal budget-a real cut, not just a reduction of anticipated increase-and we'd automatically see $10 billion in tax cuts. Cut $100 billion, and $100 billion in tax cuts result.
But the effective use of any mechanisms like that depends on changes of heart, not just changes in regulations. Washington leaders who say they want to spend more time at home with their families need to act according to those desires, by voting to relinquish some power and return authority to states, communities, and individuals.