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Can government do it all?

How has the role of the American government changed over time? How has it affected us?

The American government of today:

·         is held responsible for stimulating our economy: they control our interest rates, they take responsibility for creating jobs, they subsidize industries and offer assistance to companies that fail.

·         is responsible for keeping our society decent, moral, safe and healthy: they write laws to protect us from hurting ourselves, decide what we’re allowed to eat, drink and smoke, use taxes and fines as a way of modifying our behavior, regulate and license professions in meticulous detail and oversee our general care.

·         is a charity: they attempt to eradicate poverty by supplying food, housing and medical care, they facilitate higher education, provide safety nets for those who fall short, support seniors, and redistribute wealth.

·         is an international watchdog:  they enforce peace and democracy by policing the globe, sending our troops to hundreds of bases around the world.

Should our government be pursuing these goals?

There’s no doubt that things like charity and the advancement of peace are worthwhile objectives, and that society should have organizations to pursue them. But what we must evaluate is whether the government of a free society is the proper institution to be pursuing each of these broad aims.

Does this viewpoint sound completely foreign and eccentric? If so, consider this: a century ago not a single issue listed above was on the federal government’s agenda. As a matter of fact, these would have been considered unconstitutional uses of power.

A transformation of government

Though we realize that technology, social norms and other influences are changing our lives at lightning speed, we may fail to recognize that the role of government has also changed significantly in the past century.

Our federal government was originally designed to perform strictly limited functions. Checks and balances restrained the size and scope of government and kept its responsibilities focused on individual liberty.

The role of Congress is spelled out very specifically in our Constitution:

  • 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 uniform rules and laws on naturalization and bankruptcies

  • and to make laws necessary to properly execute these powers.

As the 10th Amendment stipulates, “the powers not granted to the national government…are reserved to the states or the people.” In other words, according to the Constitution, no matter how compelling the cause, the federal government simply does not have the jurisdiction to pass laws on matters not specifically granted to them.

But sentiments changed drastically in the 20th century.

Unrestrained power means unrestrained spending

In 1913 the 16th Amendment was ratified, permitting a federal income tax. With a new source of tax dollars now at Congress’s disposal,  special interest groups sprang up, demanding government programs to support causes that never could have been funded before.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda increased the role of government in unprecedented ways. But FDR and his Congress were required to prove the constitutionality of their programs. They did so by expanding the interpretation of the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution.

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.”

During FDR’s administration, the courts interpreted this phrase to mean that Congress could spend money for any purpose, whether a constitutionally enumerated power or not, as long as legislators deem it to be in “the general welfare of the United States.” For the first time in our history, this small clause was used to allow Congress to spend money in any way they deemed desirable.

Is more government the answer?

Just one consequence of unrestrained power is a national debt that is currently $16.8 trillion, increasing by $3.81 billion a day.

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

For more detailed commentary on the effects of expanding government, please read my earlier writings on this topic here.


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  1. bonnie says:

    Very well researched and written post. However, a constitution drafted more than two centuries ago cannot address a world exponentially larger than our original Americans envisioned. Before you had children you had rules as to how they should be raised – once you had them, circumstances changed and you had to tweak those rules. That’s how I see the Constitution. Science, medicine, business and technology of the 21st century were never factored into our Founding Fathers platforms, so we can’t always fall back on it for answers to 21st century problems.

    • Quite true and very important! That’s why we have the ability to add amendments when there’s unified, national support for something not specified in the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, the abolition of slavery, and women’s right to vote all came from amendments. But we set a dangerous precedent if any politician in power has the leeway to ‘tweak the rules’ to his own liking without going through the proper proceedure. I write more about this in upcoming posts.

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