All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1960

Are We Changing Our Concept on Government?

The Reverend Mr. Sollitt is minister of the First Baptist Church of Midland, Michigan.

The writings and speeches of the Founders of our republic make crystal clear the fact that, to them, the primal, if not the only, func­tion of government was to protect men in the exercise of their legiti­mate liberties. Probably nowhere is this better stated than in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain un­alienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” (emphasis added)

The Declaration goes on to say that “whenever any form of gov­ernment becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” There was full recognition of the fact that not all liberties are legit­imate, that men are sure to take unfair advantage of other men, if given a chance, and that even gov­ernments instituted to “secure these rights” sometimes become “destructive of these ends.”

Therefore, in the writing of the Constitution, everything possible was done to protect the honest, in­dustrious, freedom-loving Ameri­can citizen from being deprived of his rights either by other citizens or by the government itself.

A limited government of checks and balances was set up, and al­most before the ink was dry on the Constitution proper, a Bill of Rights was added to it as a re­sounding exclamation point to em­phasize the fact that our Founding Fathers were determined that every citizen should be protected in the exercise of his legitimate liberties. Powers not specifically mentioned in the Constitution were reserved to the states and to the individuals who compose those states. America was to be a land where people could do as they pleased so long as what they pleased to do did not interfere with their neighbor’s equal right.

For more than a century and a half “freedom” was the central idea in the American dream and the big word in our language. We even justified our wars by appeals, sometimes specious, to freedom slogans.

We sang about “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We praised America as the “sweet land of liberty.” We bought “lib­erty” bonds and talked about help­ing to build a “free” world.

The New Deal

Then came the 1930′s. There was depression, widespread un­employment, and untold misery. Opinions differ as to the cause which produced these conditions. Suffice it to say at this point in our discussion that this was the case. Thoughts of freedom gave place to thoughts of keeping body and soul together. Franklin De­lano Roosevelt was elected Presi­dent of the United States.

There was so much to be done that our new President was granted emergency powers, in ad­dition to which he exercised powers that were not granted. He instituted programs which were later declared unconstitutional. Congress was bypassed. The Con­stitution was circumvented. But important things were being done in behalf of the needy and the un­employed. And people seemed to show every promise of voting for more and more of the same.

In 1938 Mr. Roosevelt wrote a statement which should be com­pared with the quotation from the Declaration of Independence given earlier in this article. Mr. Roose­velt said:

Government has the definite duty to use all its powers and re­sources to meet new social prob­lems with new social controls. (In­troduction to Public Papers and Addresses, 1941)

This he justified on the pseudo-logical grounds that it was “to in­sure the average person the right to his own economic and political life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Unfortunately, this lip-service to the Declaration of Independence kept people from seeing that polit­ical liberty and social control are opposites—that you can’t protect man in the exercise of his legiti­mate liberties by imposing on him controls which destroy those lib­erties.

But it sounded good, especially when Mr. Roosevelt said it, and patriotic Americans were all for anything that would guarantee people’s rights, as Mr. Roosevelt said the imposition of these social controls would do. So we launched on an era of social control utterly new to Americans. After all, in 1933 we were still a freedom-lov­ing people.

Thus began the phenomenal growth of our government with its added controls and services, and, of course, taxes to enforce these controls and extend these services. After NRA, WPA, and PWA came OPA and OPS, and we floundered in a veritable sea of alphabet soup from which we have never emerged. All kinds of bureaus, administra­tions, plans, programs, controls, supports, subsidies, etc., have come into being designed to help those who needed help, and all kinds of people who never used to need help are suddenly found among the needy.

The “Give Me” Habit

America had gotten her first taste of government organized to “give to him that asketh” and the taste was exhilarating—intoxicat­ing—we liked it. “Give me liberty or give me death,” was shortened to just “Give me.” We not only wanted to be protected in the use of what we already had, but we got so we wanted a little bit of what everybody else had, too, not realizing that those two things are utterly incompatible. Now we had a government which guaranteed us protection against robbery, on the one hand, and promised us, on the other hand, that others would be robbed in our behalf if we could demonstrate our need, and if we would only keep the right people in power. Mr. Roosevelt had in­vented a new parlor game in which we all stand in a circle each with his hands in the other man’s pockets all expecting to get richer thereby.

Perhaps it was merely a coinci­dence, but it was about this time that the goddess of liberty disap­peared from our dimes and Mr. Roosevelt’s picture took its place—the perfect symbol of what was happening to our old concept of government.

Apparently nobody had thought of one obvious fact: Government could not give to us what it did not first take away from us.

Unlike other countries which, when they have ruined their own economy by the same methods we had now adopted, could get aid from Uncle Sam by the mere threat of trading with the Com­munists, America‘s only source of income is from its citizens. We tried hard, of course, to “create” wealth by inflation and by mort­gaging every unborn child for the next score or more of generations. Still, government could not give to any of us what it did not first take away from some of us. So, regard­less of intention, our social pro­grams were soon seen to be serv­ing one purpose only, the redistri­bution of the nation’s wealth.

True, some people had more than they needed, others less. A more equitable distribution of wealth appeared to many to be a desirable thing. But some of us are not convinced that the redis­tribution of wealth is a proper function of a government designed to protect man in the exercise of his legitimate liberties, one of which is the “unalienable right” to the wealth which he produces and by which he sustains his life, protects his liberty, and enhances his pursuit of happiness.

Another thing we didn’t under­stand was that to make a govern­ment strong enough to give us what we want we must at the same time make it strong enough to take from us what we have. And what is communism but a govern­ment that takes everything one earns and gives back what is left after it fulfills its own desires? Is America moving in that direction, giving its citizens more and more and taking from them more and more until someday we may have it all taken from us on the pretext of protecting us from each other? Have we bought the idea that the redistribution of wealth is a legiti­mate function of government?

If so, we have made a complete about-face and a government de­signed to prevent one man from robbing another has become the instrument through which one man is robbed for the benefit of another.




Ideas on Liberty

James Madison

Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.

Speech in the Virginia Convention, June 16, 1788

  • The Reverend Dr. Sollitt is Pastor of the First Baptist Church, Midland, Michigan.