2009 has seen massive expansions of government control over people’s lives, always justified as necessary because of a claimed crisis and demanding immediate federal action. Health care is just the latest and largest installment.
Unfortunately, Washington’s welfare statists are ignoring the fact that rushing to judgments about complicated issues that will have large impacts on the future course of the country is not the path to effective or equitable consequences. Instead, “we must act now” pressures are paving that path by ignoring a lack of Constitutionally delegated authority, offering contradictory proposals, to eventually be reconciled after the fact by partisans behind closed doors, and voting on not-yet-written legislation “scored” by the CBO and providing the basis for adamantly expressed promises that cannot actually be evaluated, even by those making the promises, etc.
This push to act politically before there are details or enough time for careful thought and evaluation has frequently been the basis for policies that fail to achieve their stated ends, and yet make permanent inroads into our freedoms. And American history provides an important example of how valuable due deliberation is—the Bill of Rights.
When the U. S. Constitution was adopted, there was not yet a Bill of Rights. It was incomplete in that crucial way. It was the lack of these explicit protections against government abuse of citizens’ rights that made many anti-federalists oppose ratification “as is,” and it was their insistence on such protections during the ratification campaigns that led to the Bill of Rights.
One of the most influential of those who insisted on a Bill of Rights was Richard Henry Lee, best known for his June, 1776 motion in the Second Continental Congress calling for the colonies’ independence from Great Britain, which led to the Declaration of Independence. Particularly important were his Letters from the Federal Farmer, several thousand copies of which were also sold as pamphlets. And given how often the first ten Amendments have become the last remaining restraint on government over-reaching of its delegated Constitutional authority, we owe him a great deal for his insistence on careful consideration rather than rushing to judgment.
One thing that is striking about the arguments in Lee’s Letters from the Federal Farmer is how much they apply to the current push to enact legislation ASAP because there is a crisis, expanding government power without providing enough time or information for adequate evaluation.
“I have long apprehended that [some would] prepare the way, not for cool and deliberate reforms, but for changes calculated to promote the interests of particular orders of men.”
“[I]f men hastily and blindly adopt a system of government…the community will…be disposed to accept any government, however despotic…”
“[People] urge a thousand pretenses to answer their purposes… Whenever a clamor is raised…it is highly necessary to examine facts carefully…It is too often the case in political concerns that men state facts not as they are, but as they wish them to be…”
“[T]ime should be taken fully to examine and consider the system proposed.”
“It is natural for men, who wish to hasten the adoption of a measure, to tell us, now is the crisis—now is the critical moment which must be seized, or all will be lost: and to shut the door against free inquiry, whenever conscious the thing presented has defects in it, which time and investigation will probably discover. This has been the custom of tyrants and their dependents in all ages.”
“The fickle and ardent, in any community, are the proper tools for establishing despotic government. But it is deliberate and thinking men who must establish and secure governments on free principles. Before they decide on the plan proposed, they will inquire whether it will probably be a blessing or a curse to this people…it is necessary not only to examine the plan, but also its history, and the politics of its particular friends.”
“[The hope that government will act prudently] cannot justify the impropriety of giving powers, the exercise of which prudent men will not attempt, and imprudent men will…exercise only in a manner destructive of free government.”
“[N]ecessity only can justify even our leaving open avenues to the abuse of power, by wicked, unthinking, or ambitious men…”
“[W]hy in laying the foundation of the social system, need we unnecessarily leave a door open to improper regulations?”
“[W]e ought not to lodge in [general government] such extensive powers before we are convinced of the practicability of organizing it on just and equal principles.”
“[W]e ought not to lodge [powers] as evidently to give one order of men in the community undue advantages over others; or commit the many to the mercy, prudence, and moderation of the few.”
“There appears to me to be not only a premature deposit of some important powers in the general government—but many of those are undefined, and may be used to good or bad purposes as honest or designing men shall prevail.”
“Every man of reflection must see that the change now proposed is a transfer of power from the many to the few…”
“[W]e see all important powers collecting in one center, where a few men will possess them almost at discretion…we depend wholly on the prudence, wisdom and moderation of those who manage the affairs of government…uncertain and precarious.”
“[T]he community will wish…to see abuse in the exercise of power more effectually guarded against.”
“[F]orce and persuasion: by the former men are compelled, by the latter they are drawn. We denominate a government despotic or free, as the one of other principle prevails in it.”
“In free governments, the people…follow their own private pursuits, and enjoy the fruits of their labor with very small deductions for the public use…”
“Our true object is to give full efficacy to one principle—to arm persuasion on every side, and to render force as little necessary as possible … If the persuasive force be feeble, force is infallibly the next resort.”
“[W]hen [citizens] become tired of freedom, arbitrary government must take place.”
“[T]he powers delegated to the government must be precisely defined… and clearly be of such extent as that, by no reasonable construction, they can be made to invade the rights and prerogatives intended to be left in the people.”
“[I]n giving power to congress…without examining the extent of the evils to be remedied, by one step, we are for giving up to congress almost all powers of any importance without limitation.
Historian Forrest McDonald described Lee as “imbued with an abiding love of liberty and a concomitant wholesome distrust of government.” In contrast, Americans today are being asked to put their complete trust in government, particularly when it comes to their health care, with little beyond “trust us” as the basis. Richard Henry Lee’s words are also valuable reminders of the risks of turning over more of our lives, liberties, and ability to pursue happiness, to government.
“The first maxim of a man who loves liberty should be never to grant to rulers and atom of power that is not most clearly and indispensably necessary for the safety and well-being of society.”
“It must never be forgotten…that the liberties of the people are not so safe under the gracious manner of government as by the limitation of power.”