Our contempt for liberty

José Azel

Our contempt for liberty was a favorite theme of the brilliant economist and columnist Walter E. Williams. His book “American Contempt for Liberty” compiles nearly 200 of his newspaper columns on topics related to our personal freedoms. Williams was an eloquent and forceful defender of what he called “the moral superiority of personal liberty and its main ingredient—limited government.”

Our condescension towards liberty is clearly evident in our disregards for the Constitution, particularly when it comes to government spending on social welfare programs. As professor Williams notes, “Most federal government spending can be characterized as taking what belongs to one American and giving it another to whom it does not belong. That is no less than the forcible use of one person to serve the purposes of another—which is also a good working definition of slavery.”

On welfare government spending the Founding Fathers were explicit. James Madison, father of the Constitution, noted, “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.” He added, “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of government.”

Thomas Jefferson agreed, “Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated.” And Benjamin Franklin warned, “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has also taken an unequivocal position. In 1819, Chief Justice John Marshall noted in McCulloch v Maryland, “This government is acknowledged by all, to be one of enumerated powers. The principle that it can exercise only the powers granted to it… is now universally admitted.” More recently, in the 1997 Supreme Court case of United States v Lopez, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote, “We start with first principles. The Constitution creates a Federal Government of enumerated powers.”

Today, we are not asking the critical question: Is the federal government constitutionally authorized to undertake this genre of welfare programs expenditures? Until the Great Depression of the 1930’s the Constitution constrained the government’s intervention in the economy, and government powers were understood to be few and as explicitly enumerated by the framers. That changed with the depression, and the 1932 election of Franklin D Roosevelt as president. Over the next nine years, Roosevelt’s New Deal defined a new role for government in American life.

Roosevelt’s understanding of the role of government was contemptuous of our freedoms. He introduced the aberrant proposition that freedom flows from government. In his view, it does not matter how much our freedoms are restricted if the government responds to the people. Contrast Roosevelt’s view with that of Founding Father Thomas Paine, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil: in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

Not well understood is that government expenditures, and the taxes it requires, are a claim on our private property. Any increase in government taxes entails a decrease in our claims to our private property. Yet, Americans seem to be indifferent to the disregard for the Constitution’s limitations on government expenditures.

One effort to return government expenditures to Constitutional oversight is a bill titled the Enumerated Powers Act introduced by Arizona’s Representative John B. Shadegg. Congressman Shadegg introduced the bill in every Congress since his election in 1995 to his retirement in 2011. The Act would require all legislation introduced in Congress to contain an explanation of the constitutional authority empowering Congress to enact it. The bill never passed into law, however, some of its elements have been incorporate into its rules by the House of Representatives.

The Constitution is very specific in granting narrow authority to the federal government. To be legitimate, every legislature must fall within one of the Constitution’s enumerated powers. By this standard, most welfare laws fall outside the constitutional authority of Congress and our legislators have no constitutional authority to undertake expenditures on welfare programs.

Simply put, many of our laws are constitutionally illegal; such is our contempt for liberty.

Dr. Azel’s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”

“The opinions published herein are the sole responsibility of its author”.