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The Proper Role of Government in the United States   February 25th, 2009
It's not what government can do for you, it's what it can take from you       

 
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There's nothing quite like four weeks of a liberal administration to shake Republicans back to their conservative basics. And that's good, a lot of Republicans needed a shaking. And, I suspect, there's nothing quite like four years of a liberal administration to shake Americans back to their conservative basics.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: It's important to have an occasional Democratic president to remind the citizens why they should vote Republican.


The Perfect Storm

This crisis has truly been the perfect storm for Democrats to take advantage of.

Although they had been stoking the flames of hatred of Bush--and, transitively, Republicans--for eight years, they didn't have a mandate for radical left-wing economics. They didn't have a mandate for nationalization, wealth redistribution, or massive stimulus packages on top of trillion-dollar federal deficits.

As recently as a year ago, Obama was suggesting a paltry $75 billion in stimulus. People laughed off "Joe the Plumber" making socialistic insinuations against Obama during the campaign .

What a difference six months makes. Heck, what a difference three months makes. Back in November and December, the primary issue was whether or not to authorize a $25 billion bailout to the auto industry and the effectiveness of how the Treasury was spending the first half of the TARP money.

However, in the months since Obama was elected--and especially since the new Congress and Obama were sworn in--the rhetoric has reached a fervor pace. While President Bush certainly used fear for political ends, I don't quite remember this level of intentional fearmongering. During the days after 2001, the country was scared all by itself. Bush just reminded the country of the fear they already felt. Obama and the Democrats, however, seem to be intentionally frightening the country. Consumer confidence had been improving since September... until Obama took office. I don't think that's because consumers suddenly became frightened of Obama, but rather because that's about the time Obama and Democrats really started talking down the economy to scare the population into supporting their spending bill.

Obama's first month as president has definitely been interesting. He's made his share of silly missteps and many conservatives haven't been shy to point them out. But I believe Obama definitely won this first round... and not just because he got his stimulus bill.

The primary "story" during the first three weeks of Obama's presidency was about Obama's supposed efforts to obtain bipartisanship and Republicans' supposed attempts to deny him that out of spite. Following this line of reasoning, Obama lost and Republicans won--Obama didn't achieve the bipartisanship he supposedly desired and Republicans were able to stand in near-unity in defiance. Score one for the Republicans and zero for the inexperienced new president, right?

I don't think so.

It seems that any objective view of the events of the last month would conclude that Obama's pleads for bipartisanship were lip service at best. From as far back as his Inauguration Speech there was a decisive lack of bipartisan overtures. I was a little hesitant to make that observation at the time, in the first hour of his presidency; but one month later I'm glad I did. The lack of bipartisanship in his Inauguration Speech wasn't just due to some misperception or hyper-sensitivity on my part--it was right on the money. Three days later, on January 23rd, Obama invited Republicans over to talk about the stimulus bill. He promptly told them to stop listening to Rush Limbaugh and trumped the discussion with "I won." Having Republicans over to lecture them on what to do was not bipartisanship.

The whole issue of bipartisanship, I believe, was an intentional farce.

Why? Because even though Republicans had an opportunity to make their arguments, there was never a substantive debate on the proper role of government. The question wasn't whether or not there should be a stimulus, the question was how big it should be. Republicans didn't actively argue against the concept of a stimulus but rather how much of it should be tax cuts and how much should be spending. The question wasn't whether or not the government was capable of helping the economy, simply in what form the help would be provided.

Republicans allowed Obama to define the issue in terms of scope and form without even addressing the underlying premise of the stimulus itself.

This goes beyond the economic arguments that I have previously written about. Regardless of what is economically possible, there is a question about what is constitutionally appropriate.

The Original United States of the 1700's

The United States was not established so that government could flourish. Our Constitution was carefully written to limit the power and scope of government, not expand it. The tenth amendment of the Constitution specifically states that "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution... are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." The Constitution was about protecting the liberty and freedom of the people, not about protecting the power of the government. The Constitution was about a small government with limited power, not a large government with unlimited power.

Consider some quotes of our founding fathers:
  • "We must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our selection between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude." - Thomas Jefferson
  • "Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated." - Thomas Jefferson
  • "The powers delegated by the proposed constitution to the federal government are few and defined." - James Madison
  • "When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic." - Benjamin Franklin
  • "Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government." - James Madison
It seems clear that the founding fathers did not envision a federal government so expansive that it could saddle its citizens with so much debt so as to enslave them and future generations. Indeed, the founding fathers expressed concern about precisely that. As Jefferson and Madison indicated, the federal government's power to provide for the general welfare was specifically enumerated in the Constitution. The Constitution was the provision for the general welfare.

Bailing out the financial system is not enumerated in the Constitution. Nor is bailing out the automobile industry. Nor is borrowing from the next generation in order to reduce unemployment in this generation. It seems we're intentionally doing the kinds of things our Founding Fathers warned us against.

I will certainly grant that the United States of 2009 is not the same as that of the 18th century. Things have changed. But some underlying principles haven't changed. They aren't quaint or obsolete because our country has grown. And the warnings of our Founding Fathers in the 18th century have more consequence and importance than ever in the 21st century.

The United States Today

As I wrote earlier, Obama wasn't elected with a mandate for liberal economic policies. He was elected primarily as the "non-Bush." Leftists saw McCain as a third term for Bush, and conservatives generally lost interest in McCain when they saw him vote for the now-disgraced $700 billion TARP bailout.

But now we see Obama signing the stimulus package in a grand ceremony in Denver. Distinguished guests were invited. Obama was smiling. And, apparently, quite a few liberals were watching on TV and celebrating. What exactly were they celebrating? It's not like this was V-E or V-J day at the end of World War II. It's not like we found a cure for cancer or AIDS. No lives were saved with the stroke of Obama's pen. No personal responsibility was assumed. No banks increased their lending. No foreclosures were avoided. No jobs were created.

So what was being celebrated? A legislative victory over Republicans that were all but powerless to stop it? The passage of Democratic social policies buried in the bill? The general concept of big government spending? A $787 billion mortgage on future generations?

The signing of this legislation should have been an extremely somber moment conducted by the president in private in the Oval Office with no press. We just borrowed at least $787 billion from future generations. No-one should be celebrating. We should be apologizing to the next generation... and humbly considering if this is really what past generations sacrificed so much for. And whether it's what voters really had in mind when they voted against Bush in November 2008.

The Constitution wasn't about what government can give to the people, it was about making sure there's a very clear limit on what the government can take from the people. The issue of limited government is not just an academic and philosophical question, and the founding fathers didn't codify it in the Constitution just to give us something to argue and debate. They put it there for reasons they clearly recognized in their time and for reasons which continue to have very real ramifications for our future.

We need to remember this fact and stop ceding the argument about the proper role of government.

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