Beware a Beneficent Government
By Andrew P. Napolitano
The president is an ardent progressive. This dastardly philosophy of government was brought into the American mainstream 100 years ago by a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, and a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. Its guiding principle is the belief that government — not individuals — is the chief engine of human progress. If that means government tearing down rich persons to help poor persons, if that means the massive redistribution of wealth, if it means federal regulation of every conceivable occupation or productive endeavor, if it means fighting an unjust war, progressives are for it.
Before the progressives, the dominant political thinkers in America were Madisonians. James Madison, who kept the notes at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 — notes that eventually formed much of the language of the Constitution — made clear what the purposes of the Constitution were: to prescribe discrete areas of human endeavor in which the new federal government could legislate; to set forth open-ended areas of human behavior in which no government could legislate; and to leave the remaining areas of governmental endeavor in the hands of the states. The areas delegated to the federal government are only 17 in number and generally are referred to as federal powers. The areas in which no government may regulate are infinite and generally are referred to as natural rights.
The progressives have turned this philosophy on its head. TR and Wilson believed that the federal government could regulate any behavior, right any wrong, tax any event and curtail any freedom, subject only to the express prohibitions in the Constitution itself. This view of American government not only contradicts Madison, but it also contradicts the language of the Constitution itself, particularly the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, which state in writing what Madison said many times throughout his life.
President Obama, most congressional Democrats and many congressional Republicans are ardent progressives. They view Congress as a general legislature with no limits to its powers — and they mean no limits. For example, in an area clearly beyond congressional reach, such as in-state highway speed limits, the progressives found a way to extend their reach. They offered money to the states to repave their highways, with the condition that the states adhere to federally prescribed speed limits (only South Dakota declined). Once the courts gave their imprimatur to this assault on the Constitution, the feds realized that by spending taxpayer dollars — by bribing the states — they could extend their regulatory tentacles to any extra-constitutional area they chose.
Progressivism’s adherents finance the government by borrowing or by heavily taxing only the rich, both of which are sold as being painless to most voters. Yet, the former merely delays the due date of bills until tomorrow for goodies consumed today; the latter takes cash out of the free market today, where it could contribute to growth and jobs tomorrow, and puts it into the hands of the mindset that runs the Post Office and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Progressives hate the states because they can be laboratories of less government. They love central government and all of its creations, such as the cash-printing Federal Reserve, the wealth-stealing progressive income tax, and the concept of a federal safety net for all persons. None of this, except the income tax (which Wilson promised would not exceed 3 percent of adjusted gross income), is authorized by the Constitution.
Yet today, we are witnessing a government that is beyond ideologically progressive. Does Obama understand that progressive ideas have consequences and that governmental behavior often has unintended consequences? It would appear not, as his long train of incompetence and indifference, grounded in progressive thought, keeps picking up speed. It is crushing human freedom, destroying human wealth and even taking human lives.
Under his presidency, the government saddled us all with a three-sizes-fits-all version of compulsory health care (which caused more than five million persons to lose their coverage and their doctors); it has been spying on all Americans all the time (and we sleepily permit it to do so); it allowed our ambassador in Libya to be murdered (after it destroyed the lawful government there); it told illegal aliens they need not worry about deportation (and thus encouraged the immigration of hundreds of thousands more — even unaccompanied children — to our shores); it neglected veterans to the point of death in government hospitals (demonstrating conclusively that the feds cannot deliver health care); it released assets material to terrorist organizations into the theater of war in the Middle East (ostensibly in a prisoner swap to save a weird military bird who once embraced his captors); it has claimed the power to kill Americans it views as a threat to others and yet too troublesome to arrest and bring to trial (all the while claiming it has a secret reading of the Constitution and American law that somehow justifies this); and it has added $6 trillion to government debt (with no plans to repay it).
What’s going on? The modern presidency is blinded by a conceit that says it can do no wrong. This is partially the result of the passage of power from the states to the feds and from Congress to the president and partially the fault of a president who relishes telling us all how to live. In Obama’s hands, all this power produces the vast unhappiness and government recklessness we now see every day.
The same Madison whom Obama rejects warned 200 years ago against the Obama mindset: “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”