Thomas Jefferson tells us that there can be no such thing as government for dummies, yet we are but one election away from proving him wrong. This is what he said. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” I believe we are dangerously close to that tipping point of ignorance. Jefferson went on to say “. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.” The time is upon us to “set them right” however many of us are woefully uninformed, so a review is in order.
Governance of the United States, as originally conceived, was meant to be very limited. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are to be respected and protected via government. This requires a nation of laws. Those laws give government the tools to insure that the actions of men and nations are kept in check so as not to unduly interfere with the lives and liberties of others. Our founders, and the foundation of knowledge from the great philosophers that they built their ideals upon considered liberty, justice, the possession of personal property and freedom to be rights inherent to men by virtue of their very existence, not granted by men or by government. These core rights supersede governance and are inalienable. Accordingly these rights have greater authority than any law or any government.
John Locke, famous 17th century philosopher and guiding force to our founding fathers said that property rights, including “lives, liberties and estates, is the great and chief end” for which governments are founded. Locke also stated that no law is just when it simply seeks to protect us from our own deeds. Locke said, “ The individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.” In other words, laws that dictate behaviors because of their perceived goodness or value are not sufficient cause for enactment. The acid test to the necessity of a law is that it provide for the protection of others and not simply the best interests of each.
Justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare and liberty are the order of importance as written in the preamble of the US constitution. The founders were clear in their desire to make sure that government was limited. Article I, Section 8 of our Constitution, commonly referred to as the Enumeration Clause spells out with specificity those precise actions that the federal government must undertake. What section 8 is silent on is defined by the 10th amendment as specifically reserved to the will of the people and or the states. In other words, if it is not enumerated then the federal government is prohibited from doing it. It is into this area that today we find ourselves as having perilously strayed.
In an ironic twist, many individuals governing today do so after swearing allegiance and adherence to the same Constitution they know dreadfully little about while making laws and regulations that misinterpret, disregard or ignore that same sacred text. The modern day “nanny-state” we find ourselves encased by was never the vision of our founders. We do well to heed the words of Thomas Jefferson, when he said, “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.” Future happiness lost.
Jefferson went further, “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”
I think it fair to say that Jefferson, along with his brethren scarcely even considered what passes today as a significant welfare state. The concept of “rugged individualism” and self-sufficiency were accepted tenets of what it meant to be an American. The policies and philosophies behind the concept of a government that has expanded the role of original intent to address notions of social engineering and the conveyance of privileges to some at the expense of others has bastardized the very underpinnings of our nation. This has happened because the citizenry has allowed it through neglect and ignorance. We are fast approaching that point in our society where there are more people in the wagon of government dependence than are left to pull it. James Madison gave us this somber prediction, over 200 years ago. “I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
We are at a time in our history as the greatest surviving example of a representative republic, where it is up to us to face some harsh realities. We have allowed and
encouraged government to grow into the monster it has become today. If we are to survive in any semblance of what our founders envisioned, and that history of greatness once true, then we have to reform, reject and repel the over-reach and invasiveness that we have not only allowed, but in our neglect fostered. We have arrived, unfortunately, at the spot in history that Thomas Paine so vividly reminds us of when he said, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one. Our continued tolerance of the intolerable will mark the Waterloo of the America, once the strong and shining beacon of light on the hill, fast flickering, at risk of fading.
No, not on this, our watch. Instead, we would be wise to embrace the suggestion of President Ronald Reagan. “Let us be sure that those who come after will say of us in our time, that in our time we did everything that could be done. We finished the race; we kept them free; we kept the faith.” To do otherwise will forever immortalize the words of French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville who said, “In democracy we get the government we deserve.” I think we deserve better.
-Robert T. Kingsley