Ask Not What Your Politicians Can Do for You...
by Doug McQuiston
After waxing rhapsodic about Barack Obama (see The Docket, April 2008), you’ll be happy to hear that I have snapped out of it. The whole "clinging to their guns and religion" debacle revealed that our hero has found his lead feet and returned to earth.
But in watching the campaign, on both sides, I have become concerned about this election in a far more fundamental way. Is it just me, or have we all lost our way? Where in our recent history did we get the notion that government could, much less should, "give" us everything we want or need, without any negative consequences? More to the point, when did we decide that even expecting this was somehow American?
This has been coming for a while. Back during the 2000 campaign, during one of the debates, an old, pony-tailed hippie shuffled to the mike and told George Bush and Al Gore that he thought of the American people as "children," and the President as the "nation’s father." He then asked each of them what they would do to "take care of us, their children." I don’t recall what either of them said exactly, because I couldn’t overcome my shock that neither of them seemed at all put off by the question.
Well, it has gotten worse. A lot worse. On the campaign trail, in both parties, it seems we’ve lost complete track of what it means to be Americans. Instead, it’s all about the Christmas list of government programs and freebies the candidates promise to "deliver" to us. From "free" health care to "livable wages," from cheap (even free) college educations to more sick days at work (no kidding!), the Democratic candidates have a seemingly endless list of things they will bestow on us in exchange for our vote.
Not to be left out, even Sen. McCain, ostensibly the Republican nominee, has come unmoored. He has his own list, ranging from his goofy "summer gas tax holiday" to federally subsidized mortgage-swaps for all of those folks who found themselves upside-down on adjustable mortgages when the market turned.
And that’s what truly has me worried about our future. It’s not that our candidates have forgotten our roots. It’s that we’ve forgotten.
When did we forget the principles first voiced, at such great personal risk, by our Founding Fathers? When did we lose our classically American self-sufficiency? After all, America is not just a grouping of states. It’s not random lines drawn on a map. It’s not who lives in the White House, or who occupies the seats at the capitol. It is certainly not "free health care" or a "gas tax holiday."
America is an idea. It is the first (and so far, the only) nation founded not by kings or dictators, but by its people. Our ancestors fled from the Old World to make a new one. They had faith in themselves, and their fellow citizens, but had great fear of governments. It would never have occurred to them that a government — any government — could ever "help" them in their individual lives. At best, they thought, governments were nothing more than necessary evils.
It is only because they knew they needed what Thomas Jefferson called an "ordered liberty" that they created any government at all. They crafted a limited government, after winning their freedom from a far more oppressive one. They then set about creating the most successful, most free and most independent nation that has ever existed on the face of the earth.
It was Jefferson after all, (the president to whom our modern Big Daddy Democratic Party traces its roots), who said, "That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves." In his view, government would, unless constrained, move inexorably toward the accumulation and exercise of power and control.
Jefferson instead saw the people as the Sovereigns. The government worked for them, not the other way around. He and the other Founding Fathers knew that only by limiting government power could he curb the natural inclinations of government toward tyrannical accumulation of power.
So, he helped craft a Constitution that expressly vested all power in The People, and delegated only limited power to the central government. If we could travel back in time and bring him back with us to today’s America, he would be sickened by what he saw.
Jefferson would be crestfallen to see that those in control of the federal government he created don’t even bother to consult his Constitution anymore. Worse, the citizens he took such care to protect have forgotten his Document’s quaint notions. They no longer seem to have the strength to "discipline themselves." He wouldn’t recognize the party, or the country, he created.
Sometimes, I don’t, either. I am still quaint enough, though, to at least ask: where in the Constitution have we given the federal government the power (much less the obligation) to confiscate, through taxes, money from one group to buy another group health insurance, or give out free college educations? When did we, the citizens to whom Jefferson bequeathed his beloved Constitution, delegate to Congress the power to mandate what kind of light bulbs we have to use?
Is it too late for us to remember the American Idea? Is it too late for all of us to shake our heads, snap out of it, and stop lining up at the federal trough, waiting for instructions on where to go for our "government help?"
It is past time for us to at least try. As lawyers who have sworn an oath to our Constitution, it falls to us to make a start. First, pull up a copy of the Constitution and read it. Then, the next time you hear a candidate promise you something "free," don’t just ask them, "How will we afford it?" Instead, ask them, "Where in the Constitution have we given the government the power to do that?" If enough of us asked that single question, we just might save the country Jefferson gave us.
"Never forget that a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have. As government grows, liberty decreases."
— Gerald Ford, 1974