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Age Quod Agis

(Tyrone Turner/WAMU)

“From Saint Ignatius, this short phrase’s message is straightforward yet powerful: Do what you are doing.”

Writer’s note: The various levels of American government are having trouble carrying out their most basic functions. Some Ignatian wisdom could serve them well.

Age Quod Agis. “Do what you are doing.” There is a great deal of wisdom wrapped up within the simplicity of this Latin dictum, implanted in my mind while attending a Catholic Jesuit high school in Philadelphia. From Saint Ignatius, this short phrase’s message is straightforward yet powerful: Do what you are doing. Dedicate yourself wholeheartedly to the task at hand. Stay focused. Hand over your full self to whatever it is that you are doing: your role, your passion, your job, you name it.

This Ignatian wisdom applies not only to individuals but also to organizations. Businesses, volunteer associations, and governments often find themselves bogged down with myriad duties and tasks as they carry out their overarching goals of making a profit, helping the poor, or advancing the common good. Different constituencies demand different goods; different roadblocks and hindrances continuously arise. In the face of a constant multiplicity of tasks on the docket, it is a challenge to focus wholeheartedly on whatever singular task is immediately at hand. And without that singular focus, individuals and organizations can fall prey to drift and inefficiency. When insufficient interest and energy are devoted to the task at hand—when individuals fail to abide by Saint Ignatius’s wisdom—the quality of the finished product inevitably suffers.

American government—at the federal, state, and local levels—has fallen far short of the Ignatian mark in recent years. One need not be a policy wonk on budgeting, spending, and taxation to figure this out; a surface-level understanding of our constitutional structure and current events will suffice. All levels of American government are failing effectively and efficiently to carry out some of their most basic tasks. A key source of their failure has been their desire to engage in tasks for which they are not suited, allowing their core competencies to atrophy and their most pressing duties to go partially unfulfilled.

It is time for American government to get back in the business of age quod agis. It is time for each level of government actually to do what it is slated with doing and quit mucking around in areas of our public life in which it simply has no business being.

The Federal Government

Many deride the federal government as excessively bureaucratic, bloated, and sclerotic because it is. As troubling as the profound inefficiencies of the federal government are, even more concerning is its inability to carry out its most basic task: national defense. As post-Cold War defense budgets have stagnated and we have been bogged down in foreign engagements whose strategic objectives have blurred to the point of oblivion in the public consciousness, our capacity for self-defense has grown dangerously weak. Russia’s recent SolarWinds hacking campaign attests to this deficiency. The Russians successfully hacked “at least hundreds, but more likely thousands or tens of thousands of organizations—including companies, schools, think tanks and, notably, every major government agency.” Perhaps even more worrisome than the hack itself is the fact that the United States government agencies tasked with protecting our cybersecurity failed to even detect the hack. A private cybersecurity firm, FireEye, did.

In doing so, these parties must critically reflect on how they are currently wasting resources and attention spans on issue areas outside of the federal government’s rightful purview.

This is a damning failure of our national security apparatus. When the federal government cannot uphold its most basic function and adequately “provide for the common defense,” it is an indication that something is profoundly out of whack. At the national level, enhanced public scrutiny and more resources must be devoted to self-defense. The federal government—the elected representatives of Article I, as well as the president and executive agency personnel in Article II—must remember that national defense is the top priority. In doing so, these parties must critically reflect on how they are currently wasting resources and attention spans on issue areas outside of the federal government’s rightful purview.

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Of course, promoting the “general welfare” is within that purview, but the means by which the federal government carries out that work of promotion is important. The federal government has morphed into a government of general jurisdiction, with an expansive regulatory regime to boot. Rather than doubling down on these extra-constitutional exercises of regulatory power, the federal government should work to promote the general welfare with what it does best (and with what is constitutionally permissible): taxing and spending. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out roughly half a century ago: “The Federal government is good at collecting revenues, and rather bad at disbursing services. Therefore, we should use the Federal fisc as an instrument for redistributing income between different levels of government, different regions, and different classes.” The federal government is quite good at collecting money and cutting checks. If it wants to shape the contours of domestic society, its first instinct should be to do so through some form of taxation or redistribution—not detailed regulation marked by programs and bureaucratic heft.

The detailed, in-the-weeds policy work of the federal government should be geared towards defense policy. Domestic regulations should more often than not be left to states and localities. These sub-national governments are best suited to serve the unique interests of their constituents, and they are more apt to have the requisite, hyperlocal knowledge necessary to tackle regulatory issues in all their messy complexity. But this is not to say that state and local governments are necessarily up to the task as things stand now.

State and Local Governments

Although states and localities are often glorified for effective, pragmatic governance (at least relative to the bloated and blundering federal colossus), they have come up short when it comes to carrying out their respective deeds. The most basic function—and form of regulation—carried out by state and local governments, governments endowed with plenary powers, is to maintain public order. Of course, these governments can and should do far more than finance and operate police forces, courts, and jails, but it is important to remember that their financing and operation of police forces, courts, and jails are the most basic and important public functions they serve.

But what is our criminal justice system if not woefully inefficient and ineffective? Thanks to insufficient funding for the justice system and an emphasis on incarceration for non-violent crimes as opposed to treatment and rehabilitation, the criminal justice system is both bloated and broken. From inefficiency has sprung injustice. Countless human lives have been unnecessarily debilitated by this ironically named justice system, as husbands, fathers, wives, and mothers wither away in jail cells as they fail to make cash bail payments and homicide rates spike.

Getting Back to the Basics: A Plea for Focus and Competence

All levels of American government could use a bit more focus on their most basic tasks. With that renewed focus might come renewed competence. We must not discount the importance of competence as we work together to forge a healthier, more flourishing polity. Whatever our ideological predilections, if we are worried about Americans’ collapsing faith in government and trust in one another, then we must lend more energy to renewing the competence of our governing institutions at the federal, state, and local levels.

Much like we trust the plumber who fixes the leak or the school bus driver who gets the kids home safe from school, we will trust government more when it competently carries out its most basic functions. And atop that trust—that trust in our republic, our respublica, our public thing—perhaps we can begin rebuilding the frayed bonds of trust between one another, between us and our fellow citizens. The health of the polity might hinge on rediscovering that simple yet powerful wisdom of doing what we do: Age quod agis.

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University. He will enter Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. Twitter @TomsTakes98

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