We stand at a crossroads
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;”
– Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken
What kind of country do we live in? What kind of country do we want to live in? That is the question we should be asking ourselves today. There is a story that, as he was leaving Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation on the U.S. Constitution in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “well Doctor, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?” To which he replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Politically, on paper at least, we still live in a republic; although if you asked most Americans today what type of government we have they would probably tell you we live in a democracy, since that is what most people are told in school or by the popular press. Indeed, most Americans seem blissfully unaware of the niceties regarding the differences between a federal constitutional republic, which we are, and a pure democracy which we are not, but which more than a few seem to think we ought to be.
For most Americans though the question of what kind of country we want to live in has little to do with the formal definitions of government, rather instead, the conditions under which we live. Freedom is a word frequently heard used, particularly in conjunction with the freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights; speech, press, religion, assembly come to mind, protected by the right to keep and bear arms, and its corollary, to be safe in one’s possessions; freedom to do as we like to pursue our happiness, within the bounds of just laws, and with regard for our fellow human beings.
But a funny thing happened on the way to utopia. What I want and what you want may not be the same thing. How I think things should be and how you think things should be may differ also. We might agree on the same end goals, but differ fundamentally on how to get there. Or we may differ quite violently on the end goals themselves. Such is the case today; where many such as I would rather see our country stick with what are being called “fundamentalist principles” while others seemingly prefer what I would, charitably, refer to as the “socialist” path.
What are these “fundamentalist principles” of which I speak? There are many, but boiled down to a rich sauce, what I am talking about would translate into less government intrusion into the personal lives of Americans; a smaller government, doing “less for me,” costing less, and living in the bounds set by the Constitution of the United States, as was the original intent. In my opinion (and the opinion of others on the right), the government today does too much, most of what it does it does poorly, and much of that lies outside the bounds set for it by the Constitution.
Just because something can be done does not mean it should. Likewise, just because something is for a good cause does not mean that the government is empowered to make it happen.
Back in January of 1794, only seven short years since the Constitution was signed, Congress was considering a bill appropriating $15,000 for French refugees. Congressman James Madison rose to vote against it, saying he
“…could not undertake to lay [my] finger on that article in the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”
He went on to say “and if they once broke the line laid down before them, for the direction of their conduct, it was impossible to say to what lengths they might go, or to what extremities this practice might be carried.”
So who was this Grinch, James Madison, who was unwilling to help out his fellowman? Well, he ought to know what the Constitution did and didn’t say (and what the “original intent” was); he was one of its principal authors, frequently referred to as the Father of the Constitution.
This idea that the government was not to be in the business of gifting tax money from one pocket to another, no matter how benevolent the cause, has come up time and time again and in the early days of our country was repeatedly voted against. In the early 1800’s Congress was considering a bill to appropriate tax dollars for the widow of a distinguished naval officer, when one Representative, David Crockett, rose to speak. He first expressed his respect for the deceased and then continued with these remarks.
“I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right, as individuals to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity, but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money. Some eloquent appeals have been made to us upon the ground that it is a debt due the deceased. Sir, this is no debt. We cannot without the grossest corruption, appropriate this money as the payment of a debt. We have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as a charity. I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week’s pay, and if every member of Congress will do the same, it will amount to more than the bill asks.”
The bill did not pass.
Since then, this clear understanding has been lost, both in the Congress and the public at large. Who today can imagine a “national disaster” like a hurricane or earthquake occurring and the federal government not appropriating money for “disaster relief?” In the aftermath of 9/11, the federal government appropriated millions of taxpayer dollars to give to the families who lost a loved one in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
I am not suggesting we no longer give relief for disasters; it has become too much of an expected and ingrained thing in our culture today; there is no way we could reasonably rescind it and to suggest we do so would incur nothing but opprobrium from congressmen and citizens alike. I merely present it as an example of how far we have deviated in this regard (or as others might have it, how far we have evolved in our compassion for our fellow citizens).
In another example in the not so distant past, President John F. Kennedy in 1961 at his inaugural address said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Today, too often, our first concern is what the government can do to help us; when we are sick, when we are out of work, when disaster strikes, or simply because we want something.
And the government, for the most part, is happy to oblige. Happy constituents mean happy voters come next election cycle. When it comes time to vote, remember who it was who helped out in your time of need. Politicians in both major political parties are guilty of this sort of thinking.
It may seem cynical to think that politicians are motivated in their altruism by their own desire to stay in office, but human nature argues this to be the case. Granted, there are those who truly believe what they do in this regard to be done out of no greater motive than compassion for the less fortunate; and perhaps, at least in some instances, this is true. However it is easy to give when the money one is giving is not one’s own, and it doesn’t hurt that such giving also translates into votes for you come November.
Mitt Romney during the last election commented, (off the record which then became part of the record) that “ …there are 47%...who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” Was he right? We can quibble about the numbers, but whether it is 47%, 27%, or some other number, the fact remains that there are some finite number of Americans who do fit this description. We didn’t always think this way, but increasingly, we do now. Is something a “right” simply because we want it? If enough people want something, does it become a “right?”
I would like a Tesla. Does that mean I have a “right” to one? And if so, if it is my “right” to own a Tesla, does that mean the government has to provide me with one? How about if enough Americans also feel it is their “right?” Does it become a right then?
What makes healthcare a “basic human right?” When in human history has that ever been true? Name me one society that has ever provided unrestricted, free, top-flight healthcare to its citizens on demand. How did this make it onto the “rights list?” Is it a right just because it seems like a nice thing to do? Or does it become a “right” because it “ought to be?” I agree that we should take care of our fellow human beings; we shouldn’t let people simply die in the streets. But if you want a nose job, why is it my responsibility to pay for it? If you want free birth control pills, or an abortion, why should I pick up the tab?
And what are the ramifications of being on the receiving end of all this government largess? They say that he who pays the bills makes the rules. If you take money from someone that gives them power over you. If you take the government shilling, then you dance the government’s tune if you want to continue getting the money. And when the government’s game becomes the only game in town, whether because the government deems it so, or because they have simply run the competition out of business (part of the benefit of being the one to make the rules), then you will dance to their tune whether you like it or not.
Thus we see the stacks and stacks of regulations implementing the 2500 pages of law that comprises Obamacare. Thus we see endless government intrusion into our lives in the name of making our lives better. First they regulated businesses and we didn’t care because we weren’t a business, and besides, who cares about what they make those fat cats do anyway, right? Fine. So how will you like it when they start telling you what you can and cannot eat because it impacts your health, and they are paying for your health care? How will you like it when they start telling you what you can and cannot do because it impacts your health, and they are paying for your health care? How about when they tell you what medicines you must take, what medicines you can’t have, what doctors you can see, what doctors you cannot see, and what procedures they will no longer provide because they cost too much and you aren’t worth enough to society, or because they are simply out of money this year? Where will you go? Or, in the words of Ghostbusters, “who ya gonna call?”
It has been said that “a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.” That quote has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson, although neither it nor its variants have been found in his writings. It has been used by numerous politicians and pundits, mostly conservatives. It may seem trite – but it is undoubtedly true, and history provides us with many examples of governments trampling over their citizenry.
One of the biggest challenges our founders had was how to set up a democracy that protected the rights of the minority and did not end up becoming a tyranny as had virtually every other government in the past. To this end they came up with our constitutional republic with its system of checks and balances. To this end they championed a federal government whose powers were few and defined, while those of the individual state governments were to be numerous and indefinite; a concept enshrined in the 10th Amendment to the Constitution.
We stand at a crossroads today. From here, both paths lead into shadowed undergrowth. One path is to embrace government, accept a European-style social democracy and let the government take care of our every need. Such a path rejects everything it once meant to be American; self-reliance, innovation, free-market economics, and the ability to move up and down the social-economic ladder on one’s own merit and talents. Such a path cedes essential freedoms and liberties to the government in the hopes that safety and security will result.
The other path renounces such; embraces smaller government, individual liberty, and a return to the free market ideals that made our country the most successful in the history of the planet. It is a harder row to hoe, and to be sure, a harder sell than simply telling someone that you are going to break out the goodie basket, but ultimately provides a more satisfaction, greater self-esteem, and a higher likelihood of success than anything else mankind has tried.
Whichever road we take, I hope for the sake of my children, grandchildren and their children that a wise choice is made. For once the path is chosen, this crossroad we shall never see again.
“And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.”