Limited Government
By Alec Rawls © 1996/1998. (1150 words) Originally published in The Thinker, 10/25/96.

What is at stake in this week's elections, finally, after fifty years of being a lost cause, is the concept of limited government. Already the government's take from an average working stiff's paycheck is near 50%. I know. I was supposed to be making a grand a week this summer as a construction foreman. Uncle Sam let me keep $600, then there's the 7.75% sales tax on the spending end. My rent includes property taxes. I pay gas taxes, sin taxes. There's even another 7.5% social security tax taken out before my "before tax" pay. My total tax was over 50%, for swinging a hammer! Then them make me take $6/hr of my compensation in the form of workman's comp insurance that no sane person would spend 50¢ of his own money on. And that is before even trying to account the cost of government regulations, micro-managing every level of economic activity.

Government is supposed to unobtrusively enable private agreement, by rooting out force, fraud and anti-trust, and by stepping in to reap those efficiencies that market failure leaves behind. It is not supposed to become a gargantuan, tumorous, 50% of the economy, buying its way ever outwards.

You've got your greedy geezers, the largest and wealthiest cohort in the nation, bought by the drip of dole. There are the deluded environmentalists and consumer law advocates and other socialists, intent on the idea that capitalism, our system of freedom -- our world apart from government -- is somehow inherently evil and in positive need of being subordinated to government purposes.

The sheer size of government is proof that something is fundamentally wrong. Wake up!! Big government is not idealism. It is the ultimate cancer. Mr. Knowitall will explain.

America is great because it was founded on the concept of limited government. Article I, section 8, of the U.S. Constitution enumerates the purposes for which the federal government may pass legislation and the Tenth Amendment clarifies: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by [the Constitution] to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people." The enumeration of powers is quite specific. The federal government is empowered to write patent laws, set up post offices, and so on, the implication being that if any of these things were not enumerated, the federal government would not be empowered to legislate regarding them.

Today, we have a system of unlimited government power. We have socialized retirement, socialized medicine for the elderly, and extensive regulation of health care for everyone. We have government micro-management of occupational health and safety. We have federal criminalization of every branch of criminal law. We have a federal education department that oversees a government monopoly over education, doling out tax dollars in exchange for obedience to extensive federal requirements. Even colleges and universities are in many ways micro-managed by federal government bribes. Not one of these areas of legislation is enumerated among the federal government's limited powers, and the same goes for hundreds of other federal programs. Outside of military spending, 95% of present federal government spending is clearly unconstitutional.

So what happened? The great depression happened, and it happened to coincide with two and a half terms of a socialist minded president (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) followed by a communist minded acting president (Eleanor Roosevelt).

Thanks to federal government incompetence, a spike of recession had turned into a financial collapse. Bankruptcy spawned bankruptcy as each failure to pay bills left creditors unable in turn to pay their bills. Instead of acting as a lender of last resort, providing the banking system with the liquidity necessary to extend credit and bridge the temporary shortfalls, the federal government withdrew liquidity from the banking system, amplifying instead of dampening the propagation of bankruptcy.

As economic activity came to standstill and savings disappeared in bank failures, pleas came to Washington to provide some kind of emergency aid for the millions of destitute and starving. Roosevelt could have just invoked emergency powers to weather the storm, but with the barn door swung open before him, he had much bigger plans. Instead, he would offer the country a "New Deal," a brand new deck of cards, in effect, a new constitution.

The Supreme Court had previously rebuffed Roosevelt's attempts to exceed the federal government's enumerated powers but Roosevelt now fought back, attempting to "pack the court" by expanding it and appointing a majority that would read expanded federal powers into the Constitution. His court packing attempt was rebuffed, but with the nation's agonies ringing in everyone's ears, the Court lost its will to deny Roosevelt his "New Deal."

The vehicle of expanded powers was the commerce clause: "Congress shall have the power... To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes." But what are the limits of interstate commerce? Doesn't everything affect interstate commerce in some way? Indeed, but such an expansive interpretation of interstate commerce is inconsistent with the Constitution's explicit insistence on limited, enumerated, government powers. Thus the pre-New Deal Court ruled that, for a law to be empowered under the commerce clause, the regulated activity must be "directly" rather than "indirectly" a matter of interstate commerce. Similarly, the primary intent of the law had to be to regulate trade, rather than to attack any other objective, and the law had to be "narrowly drawn" to target as little more than what was "directly" and "primarily" a matter of interstate trade as possible. These were tolerably clear principles, well targeted, yet flexible, allowing regulation of trade while keeping the commerce power limited.

When the court knuckled under it did so by transforming the commerce power into an avenue of unlimited congressional power. Literally everything affects interstate trade in some way, the Court acceded, and so under the commerce clause, the Congress is empowered to legislate regarding literally whatever it wants. Thus, shamefully, did the Supreme Court lay its neck, and the Constitution, on the chopping block, where Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt eagerly took it with their bloody double bladed axe.

For fifty years now, the Democrat controlled Congress has driven the multiplying herd of government cattle through that barn door to feast on your efforts. Virtually every federal government spending program for the last fifty years is baldly, flatly, unconstitutional.

So why believe that the Republicans would be Cincinnatus? Why believe that they would do anything but use this unconstitutional power for their own ends? Just listen to the big government socialists screaming about the Republican freshman class: "Oh my god, they want to get rid of OSHA! They want to eliminate the Education Department and disband the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco!" If only they also had the political wherewithal to eliminate the Social Security dole, which is single handedly going to destroy your life.

When Dole charged that: "Clinton trusts the government while I trust The People," Clinton's answer was: "The government is the people." Clinton recognizes no limits on the proper role of government and certainly hos no sense of how limited that proper role is, to say nothing of how limited the federal government's actual constitutional powers are. He ands his Eleanor are completely "of the tumor." We have one chance to excise them. If fifty million of us pull the same trigger next Tuesday, we can kill the blob.

(Alexander Rawls is a graduate student in economics)


Next article in Mr. Knowitall series: Institutions of Liberty Require Immigration Crackdown

Next article in Liberty volume of Moral Science: Disarm Criminals, not Law Abiding Citizens

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