“The purpose of government is to enable the people to live in safety and happiness.
Government exists for the interests of the people, not the governors.”
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Letter to Pierre Samuel DuPont de Nemours, 1813
Last weeks’ election was a manifestation of the fortune that is ours to live in this country. Forty-seven percent of the electorate (110 million people) cast ballots. That would compare with 36.7% in 2014 and 41% in 2010. While results were not as I would have liked, especially here in Connecticut where voters are in denial as to the fiscal situation, they were a reminder of the first two parts of Lincoln’s famous sentence uttered at Gettysburg, “…a government of the people, by the people…” Now, it is incumbent on those elected to ensure it is “…for the people…”
It is important to remember that, while our government was forged from a cauldron of revolution, the Founders understood the need for order – for government – for without it a liberal, civil society cannot function. Its antithesis is either anarchy or tyranny. And the Founders, despite combatting the British, knew that what they sought was based on a philosophy derived from, among others, such British figures of the enlightenment as John Locke, David Hume and Thomas Hobbes and precedents drawn from English common law. As well, the Founders would have been familiar with Adam Smith through his Theory of Moral Sentiments, and a few may have read The Wealth of Nations, published in March 1776. While desirous of a country where people might pray as they choose, they recognized that the principles embedded in their Christian-Judeo heritage were fundamental to the morality and virtue they espoused and that they expected of those elected to serve.
Ronald Reagan once deadpanned that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Humorless and patronizing Leftists, who always portrayed Mr. Reagan as a dunce, repeated his words, but without the whimsey. Mr. Reagan’s point was that people cannot live freely when government becomes too big, that people lose their sense of self-reliance as dependency on “Big Brother” grows – and that autocracies can emerge from the left, from those who operate from gift-giving platforms. President Obama’s “Life of Julia” was an Orwellian (and frightening) indication of the direction he wanted to take the country.
As I see it, the purpose of our federal government is:
a) To help provide for the elderly, the infirm and those unable to provide for themselves.
b) To conserve and protect national forests and parks, for the enjoyment of all people.
c) To help re-build communities when they have been devastated by natural disasters.
d) To regulate foods and medicines and other consumable products that may be harmful.
e) To ensure that youth is provided a basic education, including knowledge of history and civics, but leaving details to states and local governments
Some will disagree with that list, as too exclusive or too exhaustive. Regardless, it is important to understand governments’ limits and to know that an overly-pervasive government will suffocate the people it desires to help. In Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “That government is best which governs least.” There are things that government cannot and should not do. It cannot make all outcomes equal. It should not attempt equality in terms of incomes or wealth. It cannot change the aspiration, physical well-being or intelligence of individuals. It should not prevent personal failure. And, we must remember, apropos of Thoreau’s comment, that the more responsibilities we give government, the less we reserve for ourselves.
When things go badly, we seek help. That once meant families, friends, the church or the community. Now, increasingly, it means we rely on government. Consider: Franklin Roosevelt’s “…freedom from want” and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society;” George H.W. Bush’s “1000 points of light” and his son’s “compassionate conservativism;” Barack Obama’s “Pajama Boy” and Hillary Clinton’s “it takes a village to raise a child.” When government acts as savior, it becomes addictive to those it offers assistance. A subsequent lack of personal responsibility ensues. Helicopter parents hover over children. Universities issue trigger warnings. Students seek out, and are granted, safe places. Adults quiver before “hateful” language. “Dependency” is one of those words of which Humpty-Dumpty scornfully spoke. It is a word which means “…just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Your dependency may not be mine; but we are all dependent, in varying degrees, on family, friends, jobs and, increasingly, government. However, we must be careful, lest we become, like H.G. Wells’ Eloi, victims of government’s Morlocks.
What we don’t know: Can a liberal society, such as our Republic, survive in a multi-cultural world where laws and traditions are borrowed from other cultures, many of which are anti-liberal? Democracy has been successful in Commonwealth countries, like Canada, Australia, India and South Africa. Why? Outside of western Europe, Japan and South Korea, it has not done well. Why not? Of the nineteen countries in Central and South America, the Democracy Index only lists nine, and they are seen as “imperfect.” Of the fifty-four countries in Africa, only nine meet the standard of the Democracy Index. Israel is the only fully free country in the Middle East. Why? Democracy has succeeded in the two Axis powers of World War II, and in South Korea. All three were recipients of American money and influence, including U.S. Army troops still stationed in their countries. But it has not taken root in Vietnam, which we abruptly left in 1975. Is there a lesson in that? Democracy has not succeeded in Russia, despite a revolution a hundred years ago and the collapse of Soviet empire seventeen years ago, nor does it exist in China. It has not succeeded in Islamic countries – the Middle East, the Caucasians, nor in Central, South and Eastern Asia, with the exceptions noted above. Why not? While democracy exists in the Baltic states, it has been slow to develop in former Warsaw Pact countries. Why? Most people in the world do not live freely; but wherever they do, they must be vigilant. It is fragile and easy to lose.
Before we change our customs and laws to accommodate those who would have us do so, we should think carefully. We should seek opinions and debate issues. Benjamin Franklin, when asked what was being created in Independence Hall, allegedly replied “A Republic, if you can keep it.” His warning is being tested today. Education is key. If youth fail to learn and understand the role played by so many, in the founding of our Country – ancient Athenians and Romans, philosophers of the Enlightenment from across Europe, the role of English common law and the ethos of a Christian-Judeo culture – our Republic will not stand. If youth are not instructed in civics and the way our country works, our Republic will not stand. “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, then, is education,” so spoke Franklin Roosevelt in 1938.
The motto of the United States, e Pluribus Unum, does not mean immigrants should abandon their religions, traditions, cultures and language. What it does mean is that we are bound by the principles set forth in the Constitution, a document carefully debated over four months. We are nationalists, for we are Americans. The Constitution and the attached Bill of Rights are the foundation on which our Republic is built – a representative Congress that enacts laws that are carried out by the Executive and adjudicated by Courts. Understanding government, and its limits, is critical to the survival of our democratic Republic. Speaking before the New York Press club in September 1912, Woodrow Wilson said, “Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of government. The history of liberty is the history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it.”
The threat to democracy comes from those who have abandoned the precepts of our Founders. It does not come from Mr. Trump, who crudely and wrongly singles out the press for “unfair” coverage – you will note that the media have never abandoned their criticism! The threat stems from progressives who, in the guise of doing good for self-identified groups, do harm through increasing personal dependency. It is not a rejection of globalism or multiculturalism or a rise in nationalism that risks democracy, it is the belief that government should provide cradle-to-grave protection. It can be seen in the socialistic beliefs of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Maxine Waters, Andrew Gillum and the newly elected New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others. It is the offer of “free” healthcare (estimated to cost $32 trillion over ten years) and “free” college tuition. It is out-of-control entitlement spending, which now accounts for about 65% of the federal budget. It is the threat embedded in President Obama’s “Life of Julia” that should concern lovers of liberty. Government is essential, else chaos, anarchy and tyranny reign, but too much government will take away the freedoms for which so many have fought and died. It is balance that is sought.
 I accept the Democracy Index with a grain of salt. It is compiled by the UK-based Economic Intelligence Unit. Objecting to Mr. Trump, the Index ranks the U.S. as a “flawed” democracy. It ranks the U.S. behind Uruguay! Norway, Iceland and Sweden rank one, two and three. But, a question: If you were not Norwegian, Icelandic or Swedish, would you rather live in one of those countries or in the United States? A million legal immigrants choose every year to come to the United States.
This article was first published on Thought of the Day.