Our Principles of Freedom Must Stand

Mr. Gambrell, of Atlanta, Georgia, is President of the American Bar Association during 1955-1956. This article is based upon his address before the Georgia Bar Association, December 8, 1955, in Atlanta. Concerning the importance of limitations upon the powers of government.

For 300 years the American people have cherished the spiritual concept that the rights of man to freedom are personal to him from the Creator, not from the State. It was written in our Declaration of Independence. This concept, to the extent that we have followed it, has guided us not only to a life of human dignity, but to material abundance.

The great truths of humanity do not spring newborn to each new generation. They emerge from long experience. They are the gathered wisdom of the ages. They are renewed in times of conflict and danger. In this sense, the current challenge to our political institutions may prove to be a kind of blessing in disguise. If the times in which we are now living do not bring a further understanding of the great traditions of our civilization and a deeper desire to affirm them, we are not worthy of our heritage.

The American creed is premised upon a simple belief: that each human being is a creature of God and endowed by Him with the dignity of individuality. Each must be free to shape his own integrity and to seek his own destiny. It follows that he may not be treated as a statistic on an economic or sociological chart. Respecting this right of the individual man to realize his own potential, we have pledged ourselves in the most solemn compacts of government to allow to our fellows the greatest freedom of choice possible in the exigencies of living together.

Where choice must be limited to preserve the freedom of others, we have sought to assure that each shall have the greatest possible voice in making the collective decisions that will control his life, by keeping the powers of government as close as circumstances will permit to those subjected to the power. We have chosen to erect the structures of government in the belief that no national government should do what the states can do, that no state should do what the local government can do, and that no government should do what a man can do for himself. The movement for home rule for municipalities, the concern for states’ rights, and the demand for limitations of the federal treaty power, all are variations on this persistent theme—that government should not be removed from the hands of the governed, that choices which must be made collectively and not individually should be made by the smallest feasible group according to its own needs.

It is almost trite to observe once more that these principles were enshrined in the Constitution by the wise men who gathered to lay the foundations for the government under which freedom has flourished and our people have prospered. The central government was to be entrusted with limited and specifically delegated powers. Only those matters that required uniform treatment, only those problems that demanded a national solution, were delivered up to the centralized power.

The great catalog of human liberties contained in the first ten amendments to the Constitution endeavored to transmute the dignity of man into a living reality. In the turmoil of our time several of these inalienable rights have been brought to the forefront of our national conscience. Freedom of speech and of the press, the right to assemble peaceably and the privilege against self-incrimination have all found their stanch and vocal advocates. We have heard much of the first eight amendments; but in the clamor of controversy over these, our people seem to have suffered from a mass amnesia concerning the ninth and tenth amendments.

A power most frequently and most flagrantly abused in the circumvention of the limitations on the federal government is the power of taxation. Only by the most elaborate and disingenuous pretense can we maintain that many so-called taxes have any relation to supplying revenues for the legitimate operations of government. Still our courts have replied that if an exaction appears on its face to be a tax, we must close our eyes to its motive. To me, the gravest of the threats to American ideals is presented by the inordinate and pervasive power of the purse, the power of bounty, the power to spend. Tax collections far exceed the legitimate costs of operating the federal government within its delegated bounds.

Government by largesse has begotten a centralized authority of monstrous proportions, and it has at the same time broken down the fundamental design within that central government for forestalling the corruption of absolute power. The doctrine of separation of powers, the system of checks and balances, teaches that neither the legislature nor the executive should be servile to the other. It was our plan that the legislative branch, representative of and responsive to the popular will, would formulate policies which the executive would put into effect. But through the power of patronage, the plums of public works, and the bounties of benevolent paternalism, the legislature has been brought to heel. Too often the executive has determined the national policy, and at best the legislature has become a censor of his programs, and at worst, a rubber stamp. Ironic though it may be, the powers by which the administrator has brought down the legislator were conferred by that same legislator.

At the same time, the powers constitutionally reserved to the states have been gradually usurped through this power to disburse, through what are euphemistically referred to as “grants-in-aid.” Under more than 40 separate programs, the governments of the states have been offered the bounty of the Federal Treasury in return for the surrender of their constitutional rights to provide for the interests of their peoples. It is an affront to the dignity of the states, and in contempt of the principles of the federal system, to assume the states to be incompetent to handle their own affairs. And the notion that the central government is somehow providing aid when it drains the sources of tax revenue and doles out a minor share to the states upon bureaucratic conditions is a mischievous fiction. A government is not a productive enterprise it does not create wealth, it does not contribute to the sum total of economic goods. If there is a single well to fill a community’s needs for water, the man who drains it dry and then distributes the water to his fellows upon conditions he chooses to lay down is not providing aid to his neighbors. Recognizing this simple truth, the Legislature of the State of Indiana in 1947 resolved:

We have decided that there is no such thing as Federal aid. We know that there is no wealth to tax that is not already within the boundaries of the 48 States. So we propose henceforth to tax ourselves and take care of ourselves. We are fed up with subsidies, doles, and paternalism.

Ideally, each person, or more accurately each family, should control the spending of what it has earned. In the long run, no one else can comprehend as well the family’s needs and aspirations, and no one can see to it that the fruits of their labor are put to better use. Responsibility for earning begets responsibility in spending. The further the power to spend is removed from the person whose toil and sweat created the power, the greater the likelihood of economic waste, to the detriment of our common standard of living and to the benefit of no one. The concentration of vast wealth in the hands of a remote and centralized government penalizes thrift and encourages waste. The money is there to be spent, the thinking runs, and unless we get our share, someone else will. A community which would reject out of hand a proposal that a public building should be financed by voluntary contributions or by a tax laid by the townspeople upon themselves will nevertheless clamor for federal funds for the purpose. It is difficult to respect money that has come from someone else’s pocket.

Today there are still uncharted frontiers—physical, spiritual, and intellectual—standing as our constant challenge. We may well lose our will and our ability to cope with these challenges if we develop and accept the habit of being satisfied with the meager crumbs of material security which some form of benevolent government would dole out to us. To the extent that we permit ourselves to be so dependent upon government that we can no longer think or achieve on our own—de-pendent on government for those things which traditionally we have provided for ourselves—we defeat the very meaning of democracy and permit government to rule rather than to serve the individual. By every step we take toward making the government caretaker of our lives, we move toward making it our master.

Let us not fall into the error of thinking that the outcome of the struggle between communism and freedom will be determined by military and economic power alone. The greater war is the war of ideas, a spiritual war of moral and religious values. In this war we must deal with the minds and hearts of men and women and demonstrate to them the blessings and satisfactions that come from freedom. They must learn that man is not a slave of the State but that the State is his servant.

Liberal education is the keystone of freedom. The search for truth is, as it has always been, the noblest experience of the human spirit. We are false to ourselves and to our best instincts if we turn our backs on truth or close our eyes when it beckons.

But the recent White House Conference on Education troubles me. Well intentioned, no doubt, it poses a serious threat to democracy and freedom. Although we may have great respect and genuine affection for the present occupant of the White House, we should remember that changes do take place; and we should ponder well the lessons to be learned from Hitler’s complete domination of the German people through the perversion of education.

History teaches that liberties are seldom lost in a frontal attack leveled against them. The threat lies not in open challenge, but in apathy and complacency. Unused, our great freedoms may atrophy and weaken, and their enemies, through cunning propaganda and small but constant steps, may overtake us unaware. We should not be so much concerned, then, about the danger to those liberties for which the defense has already been rallied. But there are other principles, no less basic to our form of government, which have been largely ignored.

We have submitted more and more in recent years to governmental control of the pursuit of our livelihoods. We look more and more to government to satisfy our every want and need. And we are relinquishing the precious right of a man to make those choices which, if he is to be a man, he must make for himself. The right of man to be let alone has been relegated to a lower order in the scale of our common values. But it is a fundamental article of our national faith that we shall not destroy the ancient landmarks in our effort to accommodate the demands for government authority to cope with modern needs. Our principles of freedom must stand as fixed and immovable monuments above the ebb and flow of the currents of change. Paramount and above all other considerations, we must channel the flow of progress within the order and limits of the law; the bulwark of the rule of law must hold firm.

I do not mean to paint the picture too darkly. The people of America still enjoy a degree of liberty unsurpassed among the nations of the world, and they share a material abundance unknown to the past. There are signs of a returning sense of responsibility and of a renewed respect for principle in the federal administration and among the leaders of both great political parties.

But we can glean small comfort when we recall how easily and how quickly the basic propositions of government gave way in the recent past. The teachings of experience are plain. Our hopes are futile if we entrust our liberties to the written word alone; the Constitution alone is not our salvation. Nor can the courts forever stem the tide. It has fallen to the lawyers, trained in the traditions of government of law and imbued with its spirit, to preserve for all the world the light of human liberty, set with such shining promise by our forebears. We must not only reaffirm our faith in the social and moral order which has made us a great nation, but we must go out and implement that faith with action. As Thomas Paine said: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” []

The Cornerstone of Freedom

Parliament’s control of the purse is the cornerstone of English freedom. To quote from the Parliamentary Debates of 1892:

“It is one of the old standing principles of our Constitution that the House of Commons should control the finances of the country. That is the right, privilege, and duty of the House. It has been achieved by means of struggles lasting through centuries, beginning from the fourteenth century down to the seventeenth century, when it was fully confirmed, and since then it has never been practically disputed.”

An important factor which helped Parliament attain control of revenues was the lack of a highly organized centralized bureaucracy in Stuart England and the lack of a standing army. Because of the absence of such a bureaucracy, the Crown administered justice and collected revenues through local nobles and squires. They were more loyal to their neighbors than to the Crown. With those who collected the revenues and administered justice being responsive to neighborhood pressures and with no standing army to back them up, they could collect revenues for the King only with the consent of those who were taxed. Out of this arose the practice of the King’s convening Parliament whenever he needed funds and asking them to grant the funds. Parliament, which represented the nobles, landed gentry, and city merchants, used these occasions to present their grievances to the King and demand redress for them in return for granting funds.

Thomas Phelan,
The Liberal in the Modern World

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