The Limited Government We Don’t Have – The American Spectator

The Constitution was designed to give government only a limited range of powers.  Yet, government, today, wields a seemingly endless measure of power over the people.  It’s time to ask:  How limited was limited government meant to be?

The framers of the Constitution were historically-minded men.  They understood that whatever will happen already has.  The only question was whether Americans would learn the lessons of history, or not.  The founders’ examination of the past exposed a terrible but unavoidable fact.  Life on earth could be reduced to an incessant contest between liberty and power.  In every place and time, there were those who sought to control not nature, but other men. Look around the world today at the numbers who yet crouch under the yoke of absolute despotism.  Look at the contemporary efforts of some nations to conquer and subjugate their neighbors. (READ MORE: Restoring Faith in America Requires Putting the Founders’ Republicanism First)

To protect liberty from the ravages of power, the founders separated power and made it a check on power, itself.  The Constitution they crafted would divide power into three independent branches of government and add a multiplicity of horizontal and vertical checks and balances to prevent power’s steady expansion.  The object, as the Constitution’s Preamble states, was to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”  Thus, for example, while the executive branch would wield the power of the sword, the legislative branch would wield the power of the purse.   The framers knew that if the power to raise money and the power to raise armies lay in the same hands, power would soon overwhelm liberty and all would be lost.

As Gerald Ford warned in 1976:  “A government that is big enough to give you anything you want, is big enough to take everything you have.”

Now it is said that though the Declaration of Independence signifies the founders’ fervent sentiments, the Constitution, alone, is the law of the land.  For the framers, however, the law of the land rested on a deeper set of laws, namely the laws of nature.   The Declaration of Independence can legitimately be regarded as the Preamble to the Preamble of the Constitution.  It identified the natural law principles that informed the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

What is the fundamental law of nature?  It is simply the principle of equality.  “All men are created equal,” said Jefferson.  As gravity is a basic law of physics,. so equality — properly understood — is the basic law of human nature.  What does that law say?  The English philosopher, John Locke, summed it up best:

There is nothing more evident than that creatures promiscuously born to the same advantages of nature and use of the same faculties should be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection.”

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, and reason which is that law teaches all mankind who will but consult it that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions (Locke, 2nd Treatise of Government, § 4, 6)

Thus Jefferson declared that all men are  “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Now, liberty is a very broad abstraction. It subsumes a variety of particular freedoms. Accordingly, the Bill of Rights guarantees America’s citizens free speech, a free press, religious liberty, the right to peaceably assemble and petition government for a redress of grievances, to keep and bear arms, to a speedy trial by a jury of one’s peers, and so on. It is worth adding that the Ninth Amendment stipulates:  “The enumeration of certain rights in the Constitution shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

So how limited was limited government meant to be? Jefferson declared:  “Governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Yes, but there is only so much to which the governed can consent. Since no individual has a right to take away or give away what belongs to another that is a power no number of men can confer on their government. 

Not having a right to deprive others of their lives, liberties, or possessions, no number of citizens can give such a renegade power to their elected representatives. A government dedicated to liberty and equality may not benefit some by depriving others of what is rightly theirs. The redistribution of wealth is strictly forbidden where a society regards citizens as free and equal.  Government, in short, was meant to be a protector, not a provider. How come? Because no one is entitled to anything someone else has to pay for.  All men and women are created equal and deserve to be treated as such. (READ MORE: Judge Manipulates Constitution in Attempt to Revive Abortion Rights)

But the framers failed to sufficiently identify and defend mankind’s vital property rights, the right to go out and get, keep, and enjoy all that one acquires. Properly understood, property rights bestow on every man and woman the freedom to gain, keep, use, trade, or otherwise dispose of one’s freely-acquired possessions. Today, it is tacitly assumed that society owns the fruits of people’s labor. That’s why Congress is free to take away and give away as much as it pleases.  So, when did the country first go amiss?  And how did we get from that day to this?

To be frank, the Constitution contained a number of serious flaws. They would spark a progressive expansion of government powers down to the present day. I would point to three glaring flaws, in particular: 

(1) When the Preamble says that government will “promote the general welfare” and “provide for the common defense,” it is being redundant. The only way to promote the general welfare is to provide for the common defense. Otherwise, the politicians are just privileging one faction at taxpayer expense. 

(2) Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution authorizes Congress “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers and all other powers vested in the Constitution of the United States.” What, in the crucible of time, could Congress not regard as “necessary and proper” to do?

(3)  It was not enough for the Constitution to stipulate: “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”  In time a purely procedural judicial standard would prove controlling.  Substantive due process could be scrapped.  In the name of the “general welfare” and to bind the nation together, there were roads, canals, and railroad companies that could be subsidized. There were state and national banks governments could license and sponsor. Long before the invention of social welfare, there was corporate welfare.

Today, thousands of well-organized special interest groups send their well-paid lobbyists to Congress and state houses to plead for special privileges.  Over 75¢ of every $1 the federal government spends goes not for national defense, law enforcement and justice — i.e., the essential protection services — but is money taken from some and handed to others (including Social Security and Medicare recipients).

The origins of the American welfare state can be traced to the second bill signed into law by our first president. The Tariff Act of 1789 placed import duties on foreign goods.  This was a boon to domestic manufactures who could raise their prices due to diminished foreign competition. This did nothing to benefit farmers, planters, and consumers who had to pay artificially higher prices for the tools, weapons, textiles, etc. they needed to buy.  The decline of trade left Europeans without the wherewithal to purchase the agricultural crops (cotton and wheat) planters and farmers needed to sell.  Shipbuilders, seaport merchants, and thousands employed in the maritime and dockside carting trades were also severely disadvantaged.  It was said the duties adopted in 1789 were modest, merely intended to raise revenue.  And the Constitution expressly authorized Congress to impose tariff duties, but not, as the 1789 Act stipulated, “for the protection and encouragement of manufactures.”  Ensuing decades would see American tariff walls raised higher and higher.  The question of slavery aside, this fed the sectional fires that raged during the ante-bellum years. (READ MORE: A Conservative Plan to Replace the Progressive Welfare State in 2024

How did we get from that day to this?  Once the nation decided that some of its citizens had a right not to go out and get, but to lobby Congress and be given, it faced two daunting questions:  Who else should be given and how much…

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