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    "You must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision." T. Jefferson

Archive for April, 2010

Why Can’t We Afford Our Government?

Posted by Free to Think on April 30, 2010

In honor of all those who recently finished scrambling to finish those tax returns, my next few articles will explore the expenses of government.

This year “Tax Freedom Day” was officially April 9. Though if you want to be more precise, click here to see how many days you had to work in your specific state just to pay all your local, state and federal taxes. New Jersey? Sorry, you had to keep working until April 25. Connecticut? Two days beyond that. When was Tax Freedom Day 100 years ago? January 19.

Why does it take so much to sustain the U.S. government?

Americans will spend more on taxes than on clothing, food, and shelter combined. Despite this, our federal government is currently $12 trillion in debt and heading for $20 trillion in a decade. It seems that no matter how much we pay in taxes, it’s never enough.

It wasn’t always the case. Between 1900 and 2000, the cost of federal, state, and local government increased from 11% of the Gross National Product to 50%.

Why does the government need so much money these days?

Of course we need money to pay for roads, infrastructure, law enforcement, military and all the costs associated with running the government. But the vast majority of our taxes support:

  • the bailouts of banks, corporations, labor unions and homeowners in trouble
  • the expanding wars on drugs and poverty
  • insolvent health and senior entitlement programs
  • a post office that can’t keep its head above water
  • a military spread too thin by an agenda that envelops much more than defense
  • a growing number of espionage and security agencies
  • lavish pension plans and benefits for members of Congress and public workers
  • thousands of costly special-interest projects politicians pass to benefit their local constituents.

How did we get in this predicament? Why can we no longer afford our own government?

Let’s focus on the federal government. The role of Congress is spelled out very specifically in our Constitution in Article 1, Section 8:

  • to levy and collect taxes
  • coin money and regulate its value
  • establish post offices and roads
  • issue patents
  • define and punish piracies, felonies and counterfeiting
  • declare war
  • raise, support and regulate armies, navy and militia
  • regulate commerce with foreign nations, the states, and Indian tribes
  • establish a uniform rules and laws on naturalization and bankruptcies
  • and to make laws necessary to properly execute these powers.

As specified by the Constitution, the duties of the President, as head of the Executive branch, military commander-in-chief and chief diplomat, are to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” He can also

  • grant pardons,
  • make foreign treaties and,
  • with the consent of the Senate, nominate Supreme Court justices, and appoint ambassadors and other “ministers.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the 10th Amendment stipulates that “the powers not granted to the national government…are reserved to the states or the people.” (Incidentally, that includes schools and education. ) In other words, according to the Constitution, no matter how compelling the cause, the federal government simply does not have the jurisdiction to tax people or pass laws on matters not specifically granted to them.

Wait, but then how has the federal government grown so dramatically in scope?

The federal government established in 1776 was focused on being a protector of individual rights. Checks and balances were designed by our Founding Fathers to restrain its power, and keep it from becoming a dictatorship like the one from which they had just wrested free.

However, the Civil War brought new power to the federal government by establishing its supremacy over the states. It was now evident that our individual states were not voluntarily united, but bound by threat of war to follow the will of the federal government.

As the 20th century dawned, Americans began seeking more from their government than “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” They also wanted the government to enhance the economic well-being of society. To this end, in 1913 the 16th Amendment, permitting a federal income tax, was ratified to wide popular support.

Prior to this enactment, Congress’s power to spend was held in check by its limited power to tax. Now, special interest groups sprang up, demanding programs to support their causes.

The third major event to weaken protections against an expanding federal government was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda during the Great Depression. Of course FDR and his Congress were required to prove the constitutionality of any new program they funded. But they found an avenue through which to do so by exploiting the “general welfare” clause of the constitution.

The ‘General Welfare’ clause

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution says, “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises to pay the debts, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare of the United States.”

In the 1930s the courts interpreted this phrase to mean that Congress could spend money for any purpose, whether an enumerated power or not, as long as legislators deem it to be in “the general welfare of the United States.” Thus, the small clause became carte blanche for congressional spending.

This debate is nothing new. Back in 1798, Thomas Jefferson was already concerned that the general welfare clause might be perverted. To clarify its meaning he wrote: “Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated.” Later, he also wrote, “To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his father has acquired too much, in order to spare to others who (or whose fathers) have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, ‘to guarantee to everyone a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.’”

In the early years of the American government, even expenditures for the most charitable of purposes were routinely considered illegitimate. In 1794, James Madison wrote disapprovingly of a $15,000 appropriation for French refugees: “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

Two years later, House Representative William Giles of Virginia condemned a relief measure for fire-victims, insisting that it was not the purpose nor the right of Congress to “attend to what generosity and humanity require, but to what the Constitution and their duty require.”

In 1827, during Colonel Davy Crockett’s first term in the House of Representatives, a $10,000 relief bill for the widow of a naval officer was proposed. In opposition Crockett stated, “We must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. I will not attempt 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.”

Were Jefferson, Madison, Crockett, and other lawmakers of their time hardhearted and uncharitable?

Of course not. They simply felt honor bound to uphold the Constitutional safeguards against excessive government. ‘General welfare’ was interpreted to mean that taxpayer dollars could only be used for purposes that were in the general welfare of all Americans collectively. They understood that the number of just, meaningful causes were infinite, and believed no politicians had authority to take money from one and determine which group was most worthy of it. Maintaining limited government protected against exploding costs, regulations and government intrusion. Citizens themselves were best qualified to choose which charitable institutions and private organizations that they felt best aided the disadvantaged, and individual states had “the powers not granted to the national government,” so could pass laws and regulations most suited their own constituents.

In 1932, Charles Warren, a former assistant attorney general, wrote a popular book entitled Congress as Santa Claus. “If a law to donate aid to any farmer or cattleman who has had poor crops or lost his cattle comes within the meaning of the phrase `to provide for the General Welfare of the United States,’ ” he argued, “why should not similar gifts be made to grocers, shopkeepers, miners, and other businessmen who have made losses through financial depression, or to wage earners out of employment? Why is not their prosperity equally within the purview of the General Welfare?”

Prophetic words. Today (before Obama’s health care plan kicks in), over half of our tax dollars go towards “entitlement programs” such as social security, welfare and health programs. Congress has also granted itself authority to pay farmers to not grow crops, bail out corporations, impose wage and price controls, subsidize numerous industries, run the railroad, influence monetary and credit conditions, and regulate nearly every type of business. We have Cash for Clunkers, No Child Left Behind, and countless other well-meaning programs with unintended consequences. We support  38 “Czars” and their staffs including an Auto Recovery Czar, a Faith-Based Czar, and a Weatherization Czar (not to be confused with our Climate Czar or our Global Warming Czar).

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D- Md.) asserts that the General Welfare Clause empowers Congress to order Americans to buy health insurance, adding that Congress has “broad authority” to force Americans to purchase other things as well, as long as it’s trying to promote the “general welfare.”

Is it possible that our wise Founding Fathers, who so cherished liberty and so feared government oppression, would have included a clause in our Constitution permitting Congress infinite and unrestrained power?

The very inconvenient truth is that the boundless power of our federal government is bankrupting its own nation and stripping freedom from its citizens.

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