Tom Mullen's blog
Any objection whatsoever to some new, tax-funded government program elicits a consistent response from liberals or progressives. “You just don’t want to pay your fair share,” or “I guess we won’t see you driving on any of those government roads or calling the government police or fire departments.” The underlying assumption is that taxation is an all or nothing proposition. Either there is nothing that the government can collect taxes for or there is nothing that the government cannot collect taxes for. There are no principles upon which to base an answer to the question, “Is this a legitimate function of government?”
While there are probably thousands of different services that governments spend money on, they can generally be divided into three broad categories: security, public services, and wealth redistribution. Libertarians argue that the only legitimate government spending is on security. Conservatives generally approve of security and some public services with their rhetoric while engaging in all three types of spending when in public office. Liberals generally endorse all three types of spending with both their rhetoric and their actions while in public office.
“Security” includes all government functions which attempt to defend citizens from aggression against their rights by other human beings. These would include the military, various police forces, and the civil and criminal courts. These are the functions of government whose purpose is to secure the individual rights of life, liberty, property, etc.
It is certainly encouraging to see a massive grassroots movement demanding that government cease its exponential growth. The Tea Party movement has already flexed its muscles in some high-profile elections, and there is widespread consensus that it will be a factor in the 2010 elections. For the first time in over a century, there is a critical mass of people actually demanding limited government.
However, there is one very important question that must be answered. What is limited government?
"Once you admit that the individual is merely a means to serve the ends of the higher entity called society or the nation, most of those features of totalitarianism which horrify us follow of necessity."
- F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944)
To even question the active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the now-institutionalized worldwide military empire being maintained by the U.S. government draws tourrettes-like attacks from all who identify themselves as conservatives. Not only are critics of U.S. foreign policy accused of being unpatriotic or even traitorous, but conservatives routinely go so far as to label them ungrateful. The argument goes that critics of the empire enjoy the freedom of speech with which they criticize the government only because the military has fought to defend that freedom. Therefore, those who oppose the present wars or our military presence around the world should be ashamed of themselves for "biting the hand that feeds them."
Of course, this argument rests upon an assumption. The assumption is that if the U.S. had not fought any of its past or current wars or had not maintained its military presence around the world, that we would have lost some or all of our freedom. This fundamental assumption is never questioned (or I suspect even considered) by supporters of U.S. foreign policy, despite the fact that it completely disintegrates under even superficial examination.
In this late stage of America’s devolution from constitutional republic to social democracy, one is hard pressed to find meaningful debate anywhere about the role of government. Despite a 24/7 news cycle and endless political commentary on talk radio, most Americans have not once in their lives heard the question posed, “What is the purpose of government?” Certainly, we hear that “the government should do this” or “the government should not do that” in regard to particular issues, but nowhere will you hear a meaningful discussion about the underlying mission of government.
The U.S. Constitution is widely believed to have been written to limit the powers of the federal government and protect the rights of its citizens. Inexplicably, this belief is held even by those who acknowledge that the constitutional convention was called for the express purpose of expanding the powers of the federal government, supposedly because the government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak. That this was the purpose of the convention is not a disputed fact.
If you are going to listen to Washington politicians at all, it is always best to listen to the party that is currently out of power. After each election, it is the job of the losers to try to attack the winners in any way they can. Often, they inadvertently advocate genuine principles of liberty in the process.
During the 8-year nightmare that was the Bush administration, it was the Democrats that stumbled upon these principles in their efforts to regain the throne. It was they who pointed out that the government should not be spying on its own citizens, that the president was assuming un-delegated powers through executive order, and that it was neither morally justified nor prudent to invade a third world nation that had committed no acts of aggression against the United States and lacked any reasonable means to do so. Their hysterical mouthpiece, Keith Olbermann, even went so far as to cite a long-forgotten document, the U.S. Constitution.
Of course, it is now abundantly clear that these arguments were made simply out of expediency. With the Democrats in power, it is now the Republicans’ turn to “fight City Hall,” and they have rolled out their usual rhetoric about small government, free markets, and traditional family values. Moreover, they, too, have rolled out the U.S. Constitution and waived it around in opposition to the Democrats' plans to “spread the wealth around.”
Perhaps there are those who will say it is a stretch, but for me the medal presentations last Monday night (Feb. 15) for the men’s moguls competition at the winter Olympics were steeped in symbolism. Most of the media attention was focused on the fact that Alexandre Bilodeau was the first Canadian to win Olympic gold on Canadian soil. He also knocked off the heavily-favored former gold medalist, Dale Begg-Smith, who had turned in one of his best performances. However, the fact that Begg-Smith and Bilodeau finished ahead of American bronze medalist Bryon Smith contained a hidden message that I doubt most Americans caught.
Consider Begg-Smith’s story. As a teenager in Canada, he was not only a skiing phenomenon but a tech entrepreneur. His coaches told him that he was spending too much time on his business and not enough on skiing. Perhaps his coaches were simply skiing purists that insisted on a total commitment to the sport. On the other hand, perhaps they suffered from that epidemic philosophical disease that promotes contempt for all entrepreneurs and vilifies all who seek to profit from voluntary exchange – in other words to accumulate wealth by producing far more for their fellow human beings than they consume themselves. In any case, Begg-Smith and his brother/partner Jason decided to exercise their rights and vote with their feet. They moved to Australia where they could ski on their own terms and pursue their business interests as they saw fit.
On Friday, an average American spent the entire day with the federal government without ever leaving his home. No, there was no knock on his door by some plain-clothes Gestapo. Neither was he treated to one of those infamous “no-knock raids” where a small army of thugs with various acronyms spelled out on their backs burst into the homes of the innocent and terrorize whomever happens to cross their paths. Nothing so dramatic happened that day. However, the long arm of the federal government made itself equally palpable nonetheless.
The first thing that he tried to do that day seemed innocuous enough. Being a native of Western New York and now living in Florida, he attempted to schedule a pick-up to ship some freshly-picked Florida oranges to a friend back home. He had purchased the oranges from a local orchard a day earlier, putting aside about two dozen for his friend in the wintry north. Anyone who has eaten oranges fresh from the tree here in Florida can tell you what a difference there is in freshness and taste from those purchased in grocery stores in the north when they are several days or weeks older. There is also a significant difference in price, especially this time of year. Oranges in Florida cost about $.40 per orange, while those same oranges cost about $1.50 each when purchased in Western New York.
I must admit that as soon as I heard that The Who would be the halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl, the timeliness of what would likely be their last song immediately crossed my mind. However, that didn’t lessen the impact of seeing the aging rockers belt out their classic, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” although this time with more significance for America than at any time since the song was written.
It has been almost a week since President Obama gave his first State of the Union address, and it has been analyzed from the left, right, center, front, and back. Of course, the speech is really about the performance of the federal government, particularly its wonderful accomplishments under the leadership of the sitting president. This is not peculiar to the Obama presidency. As far back as Jefferson, presidents have used the Constitutionally-mandated stump speech to do a little self-promotion, although what they promote has certainly changed quite dramatically.
It is still a tiny minority who understand that central banking is a collectivist institution that is completely hostile to liberty. It is, by definition, an instrument of theft that purports to stabilize economic conditions for the collective by controlling the supply of money and credit. The fact that its only means to attempt to do so is to steal from savers to finance well-connected borrowers is a seldom-mentioned detail. That people only use the central bank’s currency because they are forced to do so by legal tenders laws is a fact that is spoken of even less.
I have a friend that tends to express his ideas about everything in the jargon of a securities trader. Of course, this is probably because he has been a very successful trader, both in bull and bear markets, for many years. “Every trend in history, even liberty, can be charted like a stock,” he has often observed. I tend to agree.
At some point in the past, the American ethos was centered on suspicion of government –whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise. For most of America’s first two centuries, Americans were taxed less, regulated less, and left more alone by their government than any other people in the world. These conditions resulted in an explosion of innovation, wealth, and culture unsurpassed at any time in human history.
As that trend seems to have reversed, Americans look to their past to try to establish where we have gone wrong and what we can do to solve our problems. Increasingly, some Americans point to the U.S. Constitution and our abandonment of its “limits on government” as the reason for our downfall. It is generally argued by “strict constitutionalists” that the purpose of the U.S. Constitution was to limit the power of the government. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Don’t get me wrong. If our government were limited to the powers granted it in that document, the United States of America would be far freer, far more prosperous, and likely not facing any of the monumental problems that it is facing now. However, that does not change the facts about why the Constitutional Convention was called or why the Constitution itself was created. If you are astounded that any Republican can still claim that George Bush was “pro-freedom” or that any Democrat can claim that Barack Obama is “anti-war,” you should be equally surprised that anyone can claim that the U.S. Constitution limited the powers of the central government.
Remember that there was already a federal government of the United States prior to the U.S. Constitution. It was defined in a document called the Articles of Confederation and had been in existence since 1778. Under the Articles, the young nation had defeated the mightiest military empire in human history to win its independence. Acknowledging the true meaning of the words “federation” and “federal,” the document defined the relationship between the states as “a firm league of friendship with each other.” There was no implication that the United States was one nation and the several states merely subdivisions within it. There was no president to usurp power. There was no Supreme Court to legally sanction tyranny. There was no IRS. While the federal government would pay for any war fought by the federation out of a common treasury, the Articles left the actual act of taxation to the States.