What the Republican Pledge Needs: A Few More First Principles

The Republican Party’s 2010 Agenda, “A Pledge to America,” is in many ways an impressive document.  It contains both principles and policies that answer the call for a more accountable government in Washington.  It is particularly strong on the health-care issue.  Should the Republicans succeed in repealing ObamaCare, it will be rightly regarded as one of the most crucial victories in stopping the growth of the progressive welfare state.

As I look over the Republican Pledge, however, I am not convinced that it has all the power and principle it needs to change the direction of politics in Washington and actually to return the federal government to the limited—though important—role envisioned by the Founding Fathers.  Is, for example, cutting “government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels” a temporary tactic or a permanent goal?  The ultimate purpose of the Tea Party movement would appear to be not just a return to the status quo ante Obama, but actually a restoration of the first principles of government as understood by the Founding Fathers and as practiced in this nation for a century and a half.

While holding those elected in 2010 to their own Pledge, we should urge Republicans and concerned citizens to press beyond the necessary tactics for winning elections in 2010 and consider a more complete set of first principles that will return government to its more limited place in our lives.  To this end, I offer the following.

Human beings are individuals.  They are born not into a class or a race or a special interest but into the human community.  The American ideal has always been to treat individuals not as belonging to preferred classes or groups but as individuals.  Attempts to categorize and hyphenate individuals, particularly for political purposes, are far from being American.

Human beings are endowed with considerable capacities.  They have the capacity to think, to work, to provide for themselves, and to pursue their own happiness.  Therefore, they have the ability and the responsibility to govern themselves, both in the individual and the collective sense.  Policies that treat human beings as wards of the state rather than as human beings capable of taking care of and governing themselves are not American.

Human beings are endowed with inalienable rights.  These rights include life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the protection of private property.  These rights come from God, not from government.

The chief end of government is to protect individual, inalienable rights.  Rights are not to be confused with entitlements.  A person’s rights are derived from being human, from the individual’s effort and talents, and from the self-evident principle that a person might use or save or give away his property as he sees fit.  Entitlements are alleged benefits that government transfers from one class of people to another under the guise of “welfare” or “care” or “security” but usually for political gain.  Government possesses neither life nor liberty nor happiness nor health and therefore cannot grant rights, only protect them.  For the first century and a half of the American experiment, the government mostly protected citizens’ rights.  For almost the last century, there has been a deliberate conflation of and confusion between rights and entitlements.  The restoration of sound government in our time means a return of government to protecting rights rather than providing entitlements.

The protection of private property is particularly important in America.  The American Revolution resulted in large part from a distant government’s cavalier attitude to property rights.  James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, described the purpose of the government in protecting property as follows:

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to an uniformity of interests.  The protection of these faculties, is the first object of government.

In light of Madison’s ideas of constitutional government, contemporary attacks upon “the rich” used to pass progressive (i.e. unequal and often confiscatory) tax and fiscal policies are particularly insidious.  The “diversity in the faculties of men” will unavoidably result in some amassing considerable wealth.  The laws of political economy tell us that a rising tide, however, lifts all boats.  The more opportunity “the rich” have in investing capital in productive enterprise, the higher those boats will rise.

The American Founding Fathers framed a government of enumerated powers.  Those powers are enumerated in the Constitution of the United States.  The Constitution is not an “optional” document or a set of suggestions.  It is the supreme law of the land.  When the Constitution is found to fail in some particular, there is a possibility for amendment.  For the better part of a century, lawmakers at the federal level have regularly neglected the Constitution in order to adopt policies they regarded as “necessary.”  It is time that all policies adopted during that time and that are still in place be re-examined to determine whether they are constitutional.  To do so is not an academic or historical exercise but the responsibility of everyone elected to federal office.

The American Constitution is based on the separation of powers.  In that separation the legislative branch of government is responsible for making the laws.  For much of the last century, the legislative branch has absolved itself of that responsibility by passing big pieces of legislation that are no more than wish lists and then allowing unelected experts in the executive branch to interpret and add to the law as they see fit.  Citizens must obey laws that they do not even know exist and for which their elected representatives did not vote.  The U. S. Congress must gain accountability over the executive departments lest we become the reverse of what the Founders intended: a government of men, not of laws.

The American Constitution is also based on the principle of federalism.  The Founders consistently stated that the national government would attend to national objects, foreign policy and defense being the most important, and that state and local governments would take care of smaller, domestic concerns.  Today there is virtually no activity the federal government does not regulate or fund.  This country needs a fresh discussion about which proper objects of government should be the province of the federal government and which powers should be left to the states or to the people.

One purpose of the federal government is to “promote the general welfare.”  General refers to the people as a whole, not to select groups or to specific geographic locations.  Whereas, for example, the national highway system promotes the general welfare and is an implied power found in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution, the practice of passing pieces of legislation that appropriate funds for local “infrastructure” projects and likewise conveniently serve as pork to get members of Congress reelected is clearly a violation of the Constitution and the public trust.  State and local projects should be paid for by state and local governments that are more accountable to smaller electorates.

Private enterprise is just that: private.  Success or failure in business is and should be the result of profits and losses in the free market.  Government entrance into the private sector distorts market incentives, shields some selected businesses or industries from the discipline of the market, disfavors other businesses and causes them to invest in politics rather than in products, flouts consumer choice, and often amounts to corporate welfare.  The last few decades have given rise to an incredible governmental intrusion into private markets.  The government should divest itself of its holdings in and influence on the auto, financial, and mortgage markets lest America become another failed state-run economy.  Further, the federal government should cease doling out incentives to certain companies or industries, a practice belonging to the age of mercantilism, not that of free enterprise.

Job creation is not a legitimate function of government.  Individual entrepreneurs and workers know their own talents, investors know their own interests, and consumers know their own tastes better than government ever will.  The task of government is to attend to functions only government could or should do.  Every time government attempts to create a job, it takes productive capital—and therefore jobs—from the more responsive private sector.  So-called stimulus bills stifle economy, invention, and necessary competition and thereby slow natural recovery from the troughs of the business cycle.  Elected officials in government should show restraint during downturns and trust markets—which is to say, human beings acting in their own interests—to overcome momentary economic setbacks.  Otherwise the government creates long-term debt, the greatest obstacle to real recovery.

The current tax code is the result not only of bad economics but a complete ignorance of basic arithmetic.  The captious claim that “the rich” do not pay “their fair share” is pure politics and pure fiction.  A simple word problem exposes the fallacy.  If the federal tax rate on incomes were 10%, the individual who made $250,000 per year would pay ten times more than the individual who made $25,000.  In fact, the first person would pay in taxes the same amount that the second person made in income.  Would, however, the first person receive more from the government in services?  Would he be ten times more protected from foreign enemies?  Would he drive on roads that were ten times smoother?  Would he get his mail ten times faster?  Obviously not.  Therefore, the person taxed less receives the same amount of government services as the person who pays ten times more in taxes.  By no stretch of the imagination can the wealthier person be said not to pay his fair share.  A flat tax, therefore, already redistributes “goods.”  Yet in America we do not have a flat or a fair tax system.  Our taxes punish the industrious.  In federal income taxes alone, the head of household making $250,000 will pay over $64,000 in income taxes, to say nothing of state and local taxes, social security, Medicare, and so on.  The head of household making $25,000 might pay $3152 in taxes, but could pay nothing because of deductions.  Even if the second person paid the stated amount of his tax bracket, the first person would pay twenty times more.  The reality is that half of the nation pays no federal income tax apart from social security and Medicare.  The greater the number of people put onto the roles of non-tax-payers, the further our politics will become one of class warfare: that is, the property of the few will be used as the bait of demagogic politics.  That is plainly not American.  America needs a flat tax that applies to taxpayers equally.

The primary institution for civilization, education, acculturation, and basic human care is the family.  The stronger the family, the more likely children will reach the full extent of their human capacities for thought, work, happiness, and love.  The stronger families are in America as a whole, the less government—at every level—becomes necessary to repair the damage of familial and social breakdown.  Any governmental policy therefore that leads to the further erosion of the family—to include the subsidizing of having and bringing up children out of wedlock—must be regarded as a long-term social disaster and therefore eliminated.

The Founding Fathers believed in limited government because they believed in the almost unlimited capacities—God willing—of free, self-governing individuals living under the rule of law.  The last hundred years of so-called progressive politics has led us astray by trying to hoodwink us into believing that human beings are less than they are and that government is more than it can ever be.  It is time for the true statesmen of this century to re-fit our government into the framework designed by the Founding Fathers and to remind those in that government the truth stated by President Ronald Reagan:

“We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around.”

Originally published on BigGovernment.com on October 2, 2010

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