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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Preamble They Should’ve Written

Did the Founding Fathers get it right? Is the Constitution they drafted a secure basis for limited government? Many conservatives suppose so and believe the drift to big government has simply been a case of not reading the directions on the package. Last January these conservatives ordered that the Constitution be read aloud at the opening session of the House of Representatives, apparently in the hope that the reverberation of its words off the marble walls would inspire lawmakers to return to the limited government of yesteryear.

I’m afraid it was an unrealistic hope. You can say many good things about the Founding Fathers, but these gentlemen fell short in one critical way: The Constitution they drafted contains no significant intellectual impediment to the endless growth of government; that is, it does not explain what’s wrong with too much government. If anything, it goes in the opposite direction, inviting politicians to use the federal government to address everything. This invitation stands in the preamble, where after noting government’s obvious jobs—“establish Justice” (a court system), “insure domestic Tranquility” (armed forces to put down riots), “provide for the common defence” (armed forces to take care of foreign invaders)—the drafters added that government’s function was also “to promote the general Welfare.”

This phraseology may not have had much importance in 1787, when communication about national issues was limited. In modern times, however, the mass media turn every human need into a national problem that can be said to affect the general welfare: unemployment, wages and working conditions, medical care, education, food production, science, natural disasters, and so on. Following the lead of the preamble, lawmakers feel justified in using government to address every one. The result is a big and ever-growing government.

What Else Is There?

What’s the way to stop this drift? For the answer, we need to examine the logic that drives governmental growth. The modern argument for government involvement looks like this:

1. Problem X affects the general welfare;

2. Government is the only institution that can address national problems;

3. Therefore, government has to address X.

Notice how the argument depends on statement 2, that government is the only answer. If you accept that assumption, then you are pretty much bound to agree that government has to be involved. Not to agree makes you look cruel and insensitive, unwilling to fix the nation’s problems. And it doesn’t matter how badly government has performed in the past. Those urging more government concede that government is wasteful, often inept, and corrupted by special interests. But that doesn’t affect their position. “We’ve got to do something,” they say. “After all, what else is there?”

Well there is something else, but we often overlook it because it’s not big, imposing, and centralized like government. It’s the millions of independent thinkers and doers who each day strive to make the world around them a better place, working individually, and joining together with friends and neighbors, in groups, churches, associations, and businesses. We can call this problem-solving system the private sector, or civil society, or the voluntary sector.

Although we often don’t stop to realize it, this collection of independent actors is working to address just about every national problem you can think of. Take disaster relief. On this subject standard political logic has taken us to a big-government solution. Hurricanes and earthquakes certainly affect the general welfare; therefore, we say, government must step in. So we end up with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Many agree that this massive bureaucracy is inept and wasteful, but if you suggest closing it down people say, “We have to have it. When disaster strikes, we can’t just sit by and do nothing.” That’s the fallacy of assuming only government can solve problems.

When disaster strikes, the fact is that millions of individuals react in constructive ways. The people immediately affected do much to take care of themselves and their families. Neighbors pitch in to help neighbors. Businesses sell—or donate—needed supplies. Churches send aid and volunteers. Voluntary groups in other regions take up collections and send supplies. Businesses rebuild. Philanthropists support reconstruction projects. This vast multitude of helping hands is a disaster-relief system. The same is true for other problems: education, working conditions, medical care, and so on. The private sector can and does address all of these issues.

Its biggest enemy, the entity standing in the way of this vital, intricate system of private, voluntary action is . . . government! It undermines the private sector in three ways:

1. Resources. Government’s taxation drains wealth from the private sector. Every dollar government puts into its programs comes, directly or indirectly, from individuals, businesses, and groups that would have used their resources to do what the government agencies try to do.

2. Regulations. Government’s rules and regulations are, like taxation, a burden on the private sector. Every minute someone spends filling out a government form is a minute he cannot use to help a neighbor.

3. Motivation. Private action is prompted by the belief that we make a difference. When people assume government is supposed to solve problems, it weakens their motivation to help themselves, and it weakens their inclination to reach out and solve problems in their communities.

In conclusion, if the Founding Fathers had wanted to block the drift toward big government, they should have written a preamble that extolled the virtue of the private sector, perhaps like this:

We the people of the United States of America,


That the general welfare is promoted by individuals, families, neighbors, and societies freely striving to improve the condition of mankind,

And further recognizing—

That government action often counteracts their independent, creative activities;

Do hereby establish a government which shall establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, and provide for the common defence.

  • Dr. James L. Payne is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and author. He earned his PhD in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, and he has taught political science at a number of universities including Yale University.