"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Limited Government–A Need To Revisit James Madison

We live in an age of Big Government, and the issue today is only how to reduce its size from the behemoth it is, not to seriously rethink the recent trajectory which has moved the Republic from the vision of of 18th Century American political philosophers – one of simple protection of individual freedom and property to the bewildering array of government intervention in all spheres of American life.  James A. Dorn in The Scope of Government in a Free Society (Cato Journal,Volume 32 Number 3, Fall 2012) has shown just how far we have come:

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution took it as “self-evident that
all men are created equal” and have “unalienable rights”—including
the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those rights,
as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, were incorporated
in the broad rubric of property—understood by Madison as “everything to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to
everyone else the like advantage”.Madison held that the legitimate and primary function of a just government is “to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses”.

Thus, in the Madisonian vision of government and society, there is no separation between good government, personal liberty, private property, and justice.

Madison’s constitutional republic was to be one of limited powers under a rule of law, rather than an intrusive state aimed at redistributing income and wealth via the democratic process”.  

Thomas Jefferson echoed Madison’s convictions:

The “sum of good government” is to “restrain men from injuring one another,” to “leave them . . . free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement,” and to “not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has
earned.”

The key element in this calculus was the concept of justice.  Since the protection of property – the locus of various rights of the individual – is enshrined in the Constitution, then a government system of justice to guarantee and guard these rights, should be the principal role of the State.

The basis of the U.S. experiment in designing a system of government
to “secure the blessings of liberty” was the principle of consent.
Within a regime protecting individual rights to life, liberty, and property,
people would be free to pursue their own happiness without
interfering with the equal rights of others.

There was no intent in the Framers’ minds to expand the role of government to anything more, especially not to be the guarantor of the General Welfare:

The purpose of the law of the Constitution, as stated in the
Preamble was to “establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide
for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and
secure the Blessings of Liberty.” To do so, the Framers strictly
limited the powers of the federal government, enumerating them in
Article 1, Section 8. In particular, there is no evidence that the
Framers envisioned the General Welfare Clause as a blanket provision
for expanding the size and scope of government.

Madison himself, three decades later reflected on the wisdom of those decisions which were taken to limit the role of government to preserving and protecting individual rights:

“With respect to the words “general welfare,” I have always
regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected
with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense
would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character
which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by
its creators.”

More than anything, government was created to protect the individual from injustice; and the 19th Century political philosopher Frederic Bastiat said it best:

When law and force confine a man within the bounds of justice,
they… do not infringe on his personality, or his liberty or his property. They merely safeguard the personality, the liberty, and the property of others. They stand on the defensive; they defend the equal rights of all. They fulfill a
mission whose harmlessness is evident, whose utility is palpable, and whose legitimacy is uncontested.

Bastiat foresaw with great prescience the tumult and illogical chaos which would occur if and when government began intervening in the affairs of individuals, society and the market.  Writing in 1850 he said:

If you make of the law an instrument of plunder for the benefit of particular
individuals or classes, . . . there will be tumult at the door of the legislative chamber; there will be an implacable struggle within it, intellectual confusion, [and] the end of all morality. . . . Government will be held responsible for everyone’s existence and will bend under the weight of such
a responsibility.

Madison explicitly stated his opposition to government expanding its role beyond this fundamental obligation.  These comments are reflected in conservative views today:

A just security to property is not afforded by that government under which unequal taxes oppress one species of property and reward another species;
where arbitrary taxes invade the domestic sanctuaries of the rich, and excessive taxes grind the faces of the poor; where the keenness and competitions of want are deemed an insufficient spur to labor, and taxes are again applied by an unfeeling policy, as another spur.

Note that Madison, although insistent that government not be instrumental in redistributing wealth, but leaving all economic configurations to private enterprise, did not disavow taxation, just the use of tax policy to implement political objectives. This, of course, is the conservative objection to current tax policy and the insistent demand for reform.  In our tax laws the hand of government is everywhere from the housing deduction which government uses as an indirect dirigiste policy to promote the housing industry, to variable capital gains taxes, to tax breaks, credits, and tax holidays, all of which are designed and implemented according to the prevailing political agenda.

Madison, believing as he did in the primacy of personal property as the locus and repository of individual rights, also believed in the freedom to create wealth from its expansion. Above all, government should not stand in the way of such growth – nor should it intervene in the process:

Madison consistently argued that “in a just and free Government . . . the rights both of property and of persons ought to be effectively guarded.” He also recognized that doing so would “encourage industry by securing the
enjoyment of its fruits.” In his speech in the First Congress on
April 9, 1789, Madison emphasized that “commercial shackles are
generally unjust, oppressive, and impolitic.” Moreover, he held that
“all are benefited by exchange, and the less this exchange is cramped
by Government, the greater are the proportions of benefit to each”

The presidential campaign this year has focused more on the issue of the nature and size of government more than any other.  Many ‘progressives’ will reject or choose to ignore the Constitutional principles first enunciated by the Founding Fathers, saying that much has changed in the ensuing 225 years, Madison and Jefferson could never have anticipated the size and complexity of the Republic, and of course they would have given government more scope if they could possibly have known.  This, of course, is self-serving denial.  If anything, a consideration of how to reconfigure the American political and economic landscape is even more important, for as Bastiat and others predicted in the 19th century, a rampant State is disruptive, erosive, and counter-productive.

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