All Commentary
Saturday, July 1, 1978

We the People

Mr. Bradford, of Ocala, Florida, is well known as a writer, poet, speaker, and business organization consultant.

When our fathers put themselves to the task of devising a fundamental law for the brand new nation they had created, they displayed great unity of purpose and breadth of vis­ion. They did not, in class-conscious fashion, ask, What can we do for the benefit of agriculture? Or, How can we help labor? Or, What will be best for industry? No, their sights were on an altogether different sort of target—and they expressed the es­sence of it in the first three words of the Constitution they were so care­fully and laboriously drafting: “We, the people.”

Today, at a time when we are beset on all sides by the demands of this and that special interest, it would be fine if the leaders and exponents of all such groups would take a minute to read the one short paragraph that forms the preamble to that Constitution.

In passing, it is of interest to note that in a period of rather florid rhetoric the Founders restrained themselves remarkably at the really crucial moments. The Decla­ration of Independence, to be sure, is not an example of such reticence; but then, it was really a public rela­tions production—a propaganda document, designed to tell the world why a certain action had been ta­ken. It was prepared out of “a decent respect for the opinions of man­kind.” It had to go into considerable detail.

But the “action paper,” the thing that did the trick, was a little 47-word resolution introduced by Richard Henry Lee, which asserted quite simply that the American col­onies were, and of right ought to be, free and independent states. And it was so with the Constitution. Of course many words were required to spell out all its articles and sections; but when it came to setting down just what the basic law of the new nation was all about, the Founders laid it out fully in that one short paragraph.

They said it was to form a more perfect union; establish justice; in­sure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; and secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity.

That was it. That’s what they said it was all about—and it ought to be required reading to offset somewhat the recurrent proposals for the addi­tion of this or that million-dollar bureau to bring this or that alleged billion-dollar “benefit” to this or that group—or for the creation of this or that agency to regulate and control the minutiae of our lives.

And I now suddenly realize that the paragraph I have just written contains an example of the kind of compulsion I’m given to complain­ing about! Okay—so I will let it stand for that reason. Look: “It ought to be required reading.” I know, I know—that’s a common con­versational stereotype, but its use illustrates the innate attitude toward compulsion that is at the root of super governmentalism. I think, or my particular elite group thinks, that the preamble is important—therefore everybody should be required to read it!

But to return to the Founders, in addition to being sure of their aims, they were very conscious of the source of their authority. When they set down a principle, or even a pro­cedure, they knew who, ultimately, was speaking. It was “we, the peo­ple.”

Of course the great issues of statism versus freedom were not posed to our colonial forebears in the explicit terms of privilege and pref­erence such as we now hear. But the Founders were not ignorant of either history or human nature. They knew that a time would come when there would be demands for governmental favors, preferences, largesse; and they made no place for them, except inadvertently, per­haps, in the much-tortured gen­eral welfare clause; and the antici­pated demands for such extensions of government were answered once for all by Jefferson’s simple phrase: “The best governed are the least governed.”

The Growth of Bureaucracy

History shows that it is the seem­ingly ineradicable tendency of men to vacillate between the extremes of government—from Jeffersonian simplicity to the imagined benefits (and inevitable restrictions) of com­plete statism. It is not argued in these paragraphs that we can return to the simple governmental forms that sufficed for our colonial and agrarian periods. We are a vast and complicated aggregation of aims, interests, economic problems, politi­cal processes and social respon­sibilities. But through the years we have erected in Washington and throughout the states a bureaucrat­ic monstrosity that is devouring our savings, crippling our economy, and stifling our initiative.

To some extent the cost and re­pressions of such overextension of government were felt in colonial times, and they aroused the anger of our sires, perhaps even more than the British denial of representative government had done. Jefferson himself was testy about it. As a philosophical statesman he was con­cerned about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; but as a tax­paying citizen he was both con­cerned and angered because the London bureaucracy had “sent hither a swarm of officers to harass our people and eat out their sub­stance.”

What does that sentence signify in terms of present-day American ex­perience? Well, wholly apart from the several vast and ramified De­partments of the Federal es­tablishment—State, Commerce, Labor, Justice and so on—there are now sixty-one so-called Independent Agencies, plus seventy Boards, Committees and Commissions, that have been created by the Congress. I have no figures on the number of people employed in them, but it is of course very large; and for the gov­ernment as a whole, not counting those in the several military ser­vices, there are now very close to three million people on the Federal payroll!

A Costly Army

No question is here raised about the efficiency of those people, or their honesty and devotion. They are citizens, employed to do work projected by the Congress. But they do, “eat out our substance.” They do cost money—millions, billions of it in the aggregate. And they do con­tribute to the accumulation of a debt that now exceeds the utterly incom­prehensible figure of 600 billion dol­lars.

Who owes that debt, and must finally pay it, one way or another? The government? Not really. The ultimate debtor: We, the people!

But the materiality of such dollar-statistics is really not what I am reaching for. Rather, I am trying to express the proper relationship of the citizen to his government and vice versa; and that relationship is not expressible ideally in terms of dollars or the cost of bread. To be sure, man does live by bread and the nutrients it symbolizes—not alone, of course, for there is a higher nourishment; but food and shelter are important needs, and even our moments of purest philosophy and warmest philanthropy are influenced and modified by the shape and size—and cost!—of our physical and political environment. Pseudo social scientists who envision the Super state as the Mother-Father image of the future seem happily unaware that a shattering blow can be dealt to both economic and politi­cal theorizing by such a crass bit of realism as the price of beans!

It is a far cry, from our present-day, Washington-centered politico-economic set up, back to the ideals of the Founders. It is the fashion these days in leftward circles to assume that the vast spate of so-called social legislation, and the resultant enor­mous cost and sprawling bureauc­racy, is all in keeping with the “rev­olutionary” ideas of the men who wrote the Constitution. Especially during these past two or three years, when we were in a Bicentennial euphoria, we have heard a lot of cant about the “radicals” and “revolu­tionaries” who sparked the Ameri­can War for Independence and de­vised the American form of govern­ment. A great deal of this maudlin output was either grossly overdrawn or flatly and ludicrously false.

What, after all, was the aim of those men who directed the Ameri­can destinies for some years before, and during, that fateful summer of 1787 when the Constitution was being drafted? Certainly it was not “revolution” in the modern sense of the term. Indeed, that word does not occur in the Declaration of Indepen­dence; and so far as I can discover, it was little used in the literature and oratory of the period. Even Patrick Henry’s impassioned plea was not for revolution, but for liberty. And when the term “revolution” was employed, it referred not so much to the act of separation from the mother country, as to the evolution of thinking among the American people—as when John Adams, years later, wrote that “the Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.” No, the Founders were not aiming at revolution, but reason; they were not out to destroy, but to build.

They had reluctantly fought an unwanted war—a war which, judged either by logic or logistics, they hadn’t a chance of winning. In that desperate gamble they were well served by the tenacity, cunning and superb generalship of the man from Mount Vernon, plus the wiles of Benjamin Franklin in luring France into the conflict. But now that was all past. Now they were on their own in the big world of nations. The makeshift, ramshackle machinery of the old Confederation, which had haltingly enabled them to ride out the war years, was a totally in­adequate craft for the waters upon which they were now embarked.

They started out, first of all, with a healthy fear of the very institution they were charged with creating—namely, government. Recognizing the imperative need for it in the regulation of human affairs, they were nevertheless fully aware of its potential threat to the self­same liberties it was designed to preserve. They were, for the most part, men of considerable schol­arship, versed in history and famil­iar with the writings of social and political philosophers like Locke, Montesquieu, and Blackstone.

Moreover, Adam Smith’s long-awaited Wealth of Nations had been published in 1776, and by the sum­mer of 1787, when the Constitution was being hammered out in Philadelphia, the Scotchman’s mas­terpiece had been widely read in America, as it had in England and on the Continent. The framers of the Constitution were almost certainly familiar with its major premises. They were not all paragons of wis­dom and virtue. They could and did play politics, quarrel, impute mo­tives, take advantage. Bitter wrangling developed between those who represented the smaller states like Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey and their opposite numbers from such big commonwealths as New York, Pennsylvania, Mas­sachusetts and Virginia. In other words, they were a convention of men. But they were enlightened men; and with all their differences they were devotedly committed to the task of making a nation.

They knew first of all that gov­ernment, of some kind, is necessary. The ideal thing would be for men to live together in harmony, without need of control or direction. Indeed, one of the delegates was soon to express this, in the so-called Federalist papers, published to win support for the Constitution. “If men were angels,” he wrote, “no govern­ment would be necessary.” And he went on: “In forming a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the gov­ernment to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”

Limited Government

But men, alas, are not angels; and even if they were, conflicts might arise—witness Lucifer’s revolt, as chronicled at considerable length by John Milton. But let’s not be face­tious. Men being fallible creatures, we confront the simple fact that they need to be protected—first of all, from one another! Also the mechanics of their civilization, as they have matured through the cen­turies, layer by layer and culture by culture, on the several world stages—those mechanics, or rather mechanisms, require to be guarded, protected from abuse, and, to a min­imal degree, regulated. Hence gov­ernment.

Once in a whimsical moment I tabulated in verse the origin of one such civilizing mechanism. In my fable a primitive hunter, back from a wearying chase with a haunch of venison over his hairy shoulder, was downcast because he had shattered his last flint-head spear, and must spend much time and effort to fash­ion another. But his neighbor, a cripple who could not go a field to hunt, had several flint heads all chipped out—but no meat in his cave. So, in a great flash, it came to them that they could swap and each be the gainer. Thus trade was born; and I summarized its essence in two lines:

Each gave the thing he least required,

And gained the thing he most desired!

It was that simple principle, applied across the broad spectrum of man’s physical needs, which de­veloped into the socio-economic mechanisms that came to be known by such names as the division of labor, specialization, craftsmanship, industry, exchange, money—in short, the implements of trade, the Great Civilizer.

For it was not alone to physical comforts and necessities that the principle of exchange was applied beneficially. If it could enable the hunter, the fisherman, the tanner, the spinner, the weaver and a hundred other specialists to de­velop and ply their crafts through the trading of skill for skill as ex­pressed in product, it could also make possible a like extension in things of the mind. It could and did lead to the development of science and art and literature. The great principle of exchange, like a shuttle in the loom of time, helped weave the fabric of civilization.

Remove the Restrictions

By 1783 the American Colonies were, of course, heavily involved in all the ramifications of a commer­cial, industrial and agricultural economy. Under the restrictive British bureaucracy the rights of the Colonials in all these areas had often been impeded and at times ruthlessly restricted. Those charged with devising the new government were aware that the greatest possi­ble spirit of individual enterprise and initiative should be en­couraged—not by subsidy from public funds, nor by the relaxation of vigilance in upholding necessary laws, but by the removal or non-imposition of all unneeded restric­tions.

They wanted, it seems clear, a government under which Americans could pursue their respective inter­ests through peaceful production and exchange in the open market—buyers and sellers, producers and consumers, suppliers and customers, in a beneficial interchange.

Freedom! That was what they were after; not just relief from whimsical bureaucratic restrictions, but freedom to make, produce, trade, sell, buy, invent, invest, build, save, spend—freedom, in short, to live the sort of life that is natural and nor­mal to an industrious, inventive, adventurous and acquisitive people.

Acquisitive? Whoa there a mi­nute! Better be careful here. Better tread softly. You see, to acquire is to get; and in certain over-delicate cir­cles acquisition is equated with something like social piracy, as though “getting” anything is always done at someone else’s expense. And indeed it sometimes may be done so—and that’s where the State, rep­resented by the Law, comes in. In a negative sense, that’s what the State is for. But while Webster’s says that to acquire is to gain “by any means,” it adds, “usually by one’s own exertions.” And in that sense we have indeed been an ac­quisitive people—and three rousing cheers for it! Home ownership, com­petence, security, stability, indus­try, application, independence—these are at once the products and the motivation of acquisition. They are also the foundation stones of responsible government.

By creating a governmental envi­ronment favorable to personal in­itiative, the Founders laid the foun­dation for our greatness as a nation. Despite the drain of several wars

the long-felt burden of debt from the War for Independence itself, the ghastly toll of the Civil War, and the staggering outlays for the first and second World Wars—despite these colossal burdens, the nation grew, expanded and developed into the globe’s greatest power. And at the same time it exceeded all others in the material welfare of its people.

The big question now is: Where do we, the people, go from here? No account has been taken in these paragraphs of our more recent per­formances on the world stage and in our domestic economy, nor of the added debt, bitterness and loss of prestige that have resulted. That is an article—a book, a library! — in it­self.

The American problem today is not what we do about the world, but what we do about us, the people, and about us, the nation. Shall we re­sume our travels on a path of destiny—travels that have made us great and strong and useful in the world? Shall we rid ourselves of smothering debt through sufficient self-denial? Shall we once again be solvent as well as sovereign? Shall we halt the march to national bank­ruptcy? Shall we avoid the killing inflation that wipes out savings, de­stroys credit, and brings chaos?

If we do, who will benefit? If we do not, who will pay?

To both questions the answer is: We, the people.

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.