Quick up: Less burdensome

Quick up: Less burdensome

William Howard Taft was an attorney, judge, and President of the United States. He spent his adult life in law and policymaking. Over 100 years ago, he shared some thoughts on American political discourse that are surprisingly relevant today.

In 1913, at the end of his presidency, Taft published a book called Popular Government: Its Essence, Its Permanence and Its Perils. He describes how people of the time were attacking the character of the "Fathers of the Republic", calling into question the legitimacy of the Constitution, and promoting a new system of government. Sound familiar?

Taft suggests if our current system is failing, that's because it's too burdensome. So it's only worth considering a new system if it's less burdensome:

As one reads the slashing criticism of everything which he accepted without argument when a student of constitutional history and governmental law twenty years ago, he finds himself suffering dizzy sensations for want of stable ground upon which to stand. Not only are the views of those who made the Constitution said to be unsound and outworn, but these Fathers of the Republic are themselves severely arraigned because of their alleged class feeling as land owners and creditors. We have been accustomed to muckraking in the case of living public men, but it is novel to impeach our institutions which have stood the test of more than a century by similar methods with reference to their founders, now long dead.

I can not think that this school of political philosophy will ultimately triumph. That some of its views may contain elements of truth and useful principle, requiring some changes and amendments in our fundamental law, may well be; but that it can justify and secure a radical change in the structure of our Government, and do away with its character as a Republic, based on the principles of popular representation, I can not believe.

... the difficulty in the operation of our present machinery has not been in its lack of adaptability to our needs, but it has been due to the failure of a majority of the people to discharge their duty as responsible members of a political community. ... I would not say that one kind of political machinery is not better than another for securing good government and the expression of sober popular will, but I would say that, generally speaking, between the two systems, if the real reason why one does not work is the failure of the people to discharge their duty thereunder, a new system is not likely to work any better, when if properly discharged, the duty of of the people is more onerous than before.

Taft's point remains valid today. It's absurd to call for a new system that would be more burdensome than the existing one. If we need a new system, it must be less burdensome. That means less demanding, less expensive, and more successful. Practically speaking, that means smaller and more accountable. In fact, the smaller and more accountable government is, the more people can trust and appreciate it.