Forgotten Founding Wisdom
By Howard Rich
“Sacred and undeniable.”
That's how Thomas Jefferson originally described the basic American rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course, Ben Franklin changed these to “inalienable” rights, and a printer's error resulted in them becoming “unalienable.”
Still, the meaning was clear. Or at least it was 233 years ago—when the U.S. government existed as a “necessary evil” that lived within its means, not a self-perpetuating Orwellian nightmare propped up by trillions of dollars in bad debt.
At its inception, American government was created to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—and yet sadly, today it is more often than not a force against these elemental American rights.
“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined,” James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 45. “Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
Really? Then how are we to explain the unprecedented centralization of power we now see in Washington D.C.—a process fueled by billions in unfunded mandates and strings-attached bailouts? The Tenth Amendment might as well no longer exist in this nation, because what's dictating decisions in state capitols and municipal halls all across America is all too often the promise of federal largesse—or conversely the threat of it being withheld.
For example, take welfare for the poor—another subject on which our founding fathers had some thoughts.
“I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means,” Ben Franklin wrote in 1766. “I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”
How true. And after decades of ignoring this wisdom, our nation finally began to see the light in 1996 when it passed a welfare reform law that incentivized states for reducing—not creating—dependence.
A novel idea, right?
Sadly, fifteen years of progress on welfare reform was undone earlier this year by President Barack Obama's so-called “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” which reinstituted the failed “bounty system” of the past.
And what about private property rights, which exist to protect the one form of wealth that most Americans get to hand down to future generations? What would our founding fathers think of court cases like Kelo v. New London, which granted the government sweeping power to strip individuals of their property?
“The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence,” John Adams once wrote.
On so many levels, the cost of America's failure to heed its own founding wisdom is staggering. Already saddled with over $10 trillion in debt, the federal government has spent, lent or pledged an additional $13 trillion since the beginning of this most recent economic downturn – a scarcely-comprehensible number that has failed to stem the steady tide of job losses.
“The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale,” Thomas Jefferson wrote.
Needless to say, this mountain of debt will take generations of Americans decades – if not centuries – to erase, and that's assuming government finally figures out how to stop adding billions to the top of the pile.
So what's to be done? How can we reverse the damage our nation has done to itself by ignoring its founding wisdom?
Ironically, for that answer we must turn to the architect of the strong central form of government – the father of “implied powers” himself, none other than Alexander Hamilton.
“If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify.”
Sounds like a plan to me.
The author is chairman of Americans for Limited Government.