By Walter Williams: Syndicated columnist
Unlike today’s Americans, the founders of our nation were suspicious, if not contemptuous, of government. Consider just a few of their words.
James Madison suggested that “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”
Thomas Paine observed, “We still find the greedy hand of government thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry, and grasping at the spoil of the multitude. … It watches prosperity as its prey and permits none to escape without a tribute.”
John Adams reminded, “You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.”
Thomas Jefferson gave us several warnings that we’ve ignored: First, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Second, “The greatest (calamity) which could befall (us would be) submission to a government of unlimited powers.” And third, “Whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force.”
In response to what Jefferson called an “elective despotism,” he suggested that “The tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
With sentiments like these, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison became presidents. Could a person with similar sentiments win the presidency today? My guess is no. Today’s Americans hold such liberty-oriented values in contempt, and any presidential aspirant holding them would have a zero chance of winning office.
Today’s Americans hold a different vision of government. It’s one that says Congress has the right to do just about anything upon which it can secure a majority vote. Most of what Congress does fits the description of forcing one American to serve the purposes of another American. That description differs only in degree, but not in kind, from slavery.
At least two-thirds of the federal budget represents forcing one American to serve the purposes of another. Younger workers are forced to pay for the prescriptions of older Americans; people who are not farmers are forced to serve those who are; nonpoor people are forced to serve poor people; and the general public is forced to serve corporations, college students and other special interests who have the ear of Congress.
The supreme tragedy that will lead to our undoing is that so far as personal economic self-interests are concerned, it is perfectly rational for every American to seek to live at the expense of another American. Why? Not doing so doesn’t mean he’ll pay lower federal taxes. All it means is that there will be more money for somebody else.
In other words, once Congress establishes that one person can live at the expense of another, it pays for everyone to try to do so.
You say, “Williams, don’t you believe in helping your fellow man?” Yes, I do. I believe that reaching into one’s own pockets to help his fellow man is both laudable and praiseworthy. Reaching into another’s pockets to help his fellow man is despicable and worthy of condemnation.
The bottom line: We love government because it enables us to accomplish things that if done privately would lead to arrest and imprisonment. For example, if I saw a person in need, and I took your money to help him, I’d be arrested and convicted of theft. If I get Congress to do the same thing, I am seen as compassionate.
This vision ought to bother the Christians among us, for when God gave Moses the commandment “Thou shalt not steal,” I’m sure he didn’t mean thou shalt not steal unless you got a majority vote in Congress.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He writes for Creators Syndicate and may be contacted at: