Freeman

BOOK REVIEW

More Liberty Means Less Government: Our Founders Knew This Well

A Healthy Dose of Common Sense

AUGUST 01, 2000 by WILLIAM H. PETERSON

Statist “liberals,” take cover. Your sacred cows are fair game in this hard-hitting work by a witty, insightful, and even radical hunter of wrongheaded conventional wisdom somehow mesmerizing the mainline media, clergy, Congress, academe, and other purveyors of mulish political correctness.

Did I say Congress? Well, hear the author, professor of economics at George Mason University and nationally syndicated columnist—some of whose recent columns make up this work—on the vexing subject of unconstitutional activity by Congress: “Today, little that Congress does is authorized by our Constitution. Even a casual observer would conclude that Congress has exceeded its authority by a wide margin.”

Walter Williams notes that what Congress may do is bounded by the Constitution, in particular by Article I, Section 8, which details the purposes for which Congress is permitted to tax and spend money. Yet despite the fact that the oath of office taken by each member of Congress specifies upholding that Constitution, some two-thirds of the budget is expended on education, housing, farm and corporate subsidies, Social Security, and various other domestic and foreign welfare programs that lack constitutional sanction.

Those outlays not only lack constitutional authority, says Williams, they run into overt interventionism—improper intrusion into private or nonfederal matters. And virtually all of them incur the law of unintended consequences, making matters worse.

Congress and the Supreme Court take refuge in the “general welfare” clause of Article I. But Williams cites James Madison, the acknowledged architect of the Constitution, as saying: “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article in the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents . . . . With respect to the words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

Nevertheless, unconstitutional laws and outlays go on. Why? Williams blames Congress; but he also faults the American people who, though seduced, toast what they perceive to be “free money,” free lunches, free schools, free highways, and so on—as they view Uncle Sam as Santa Claus. Do the recipients of federal largess care that their goodies are ill-gotten? Of course not.

While many of his selections deal with government and that classic oxymoron, political science, Williams also applies his economic scalpel to such matters as race and sex discrimination, health and the environment, lower and higher education, and various international issues.

Take race discrimination. Though he himself came out of a Philadelphia public housing project, Williams holds that most of the social pathology that characterizes the black community today has little to do with discrimination. When he was young, black neighborhoods were safer, had greater family stability, more labor force participation, more upward mobility, and a lot less illegitimacy. Now, after generations of federal programs, those neighborhoods are known for fraudulent education, rampant crime, family breakdown, high illegitimacy—factors surely transcending rank race “discrimination.”

Or consider sex discrimination. Williams wonders about the notion of physical equality between the sexes. He questions the wisdom of women serving as firefighters, police officers, or military combatants, all under reduced performance standards, all in places where physical strength, aggressiveness, and other male characteristics are important. He cites the findings that at Parris Island 45 percent of female Marines couldn’t heave a hand grenade far enough to avoid blowing themselves up and that U.S. Navy Lieutenant Kara Hultgreen, killed in trying to land her F-14 on an aircraft carrier at sea, had been given “preferential” flight training standards. Such double standards not only hurt morale but are, says Williams, “life-threatening.” Point made.

Another point made is that America’s prohibitionists wage a War on Tobacco using official propaganda to dupe the nation into accepting more and more control over what ought to be free choices of a free people. Tobacco firms are hence hit by outrageous tort liabilities that boomerang against, among others, the smokers themselves, most of whom are in low-income brackets and have to pay for those liabilities with steeper prices for cigarettes.

Curiously, cigarette packages clearly carry a warning from the Surgeon General that smoking is dangerous to health. So Williams asks, in blaming tobacco firms, whatever happened to personal responsibility as a value in America? He provides an apt quotation on personal responsibility from philosopher-lawyer Lysander Spooner: “Each man shall do, towards every other, all that justice requires him to do; as, for example, that he shall pay his debts, that he shall return borrowed or stolen property to its owner, and that he shall make reparation for any injury he may have done to the person or property of another.” Not bad.

All in all, this book adds up to a healthy dose of uncommon common sense.

Dr. Peterson, adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, is Distinguished Lundy Professor Emeritus of Business Philosophy at Campbell University in North Carolina.


Filed Under : Government Spending, Taxation, U.S. Constitution, Interventionism

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August 2000

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