Scott Rasmussen: The legitimacy crisis

Scott Rasmussen

Scott Rasmussen

American government — at all levels — is losing the legitimacy it needs to function. Or, perhaps, some segments of the government have already lost it.

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow made this point recently in a commentary on the relations between minority communities and our system of justice. He said that we need a “restoration — or a formation — of faith for all of America’s citizens in the American justice system itself.”

Regardless of the specifics involved in recent incidents from Ferguson to Baltimore, Blow is correct in his assertion that minority residents have little or no faith in the justice system. To be clear, the problem is not between minority communities and police; it’s a lack of faith in the entire system of justice.

But the lack of faith is far more widespread than even Blow acknowledges. Tens of millions of Americans believe the IRS routinely abuses its authority to attack political opponents of the administration.

On another front, just about everyone is disgusted with crony capitalism — officials and agencies handing out contracts and favors to help political friends and hurt opponents. It’s disgusting when the path to riches in America comes from lobbying politicians rather than serving customers.

If that’s not enough, there’s the civil forfeiture scam. Law-enforcement agencies seize money and assets from “suspects” without having to prove any wrongdoing. Tens of millions of dollars have been grabbed through this thoroughly un-American procedure, most of it coming from the poor, minorities and small-business owners.

Sometimes, the abuse of authority seems so absurd that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Recent news stories told of a federal agency that decided the billboards and neon lights in Times Square are in violation of the Highway Beautification Act. The city must get rid of them or give up $90 million in federal funding.

What are they thinking? In what universe does it make sense for a federal bureaucrat to decide what’s right for the most famous intersection in the world? Why can’t New York handle such local matters on its own?

Actions like this have made distrust of government an all-American activity. People from all walks of life share the belief that the tools of official power are being used in an unfair and discriminatory manner. The well-connected get to play by one set of rules with the aid of those in power, while the rest have to navigate a tougher road with government opposition.

This lack of trust is a major problem for America’s government. “Faith in the system is the bedrock of the system,” according to Blow. “Without it, the system is drained of its inviolable authority. This is the danger America now faces.”

Until people can trust government, the government cannot enjoy the necessary consent of the governed. That’s true whether the distrust comes from a black teenager in Baltimore or a Tea Party leader in Texas.

For government in America to regain its legitimacy, government officials must change their behavior. People may gain power by winning an election, getting a badge or landing a job with the IRS, but legitimate authority is something that has to be earned every day.

The legitimacy problem is not that Americans don’t respect authority; it’s that those with power don’t respect its limits.


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