Judd W. Patton, Ph.D. (Biography) Bellevue University Online
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What Is The Sum of Good Government?
Dr. Judd W. Patton  

     How would Americans today respond to the question, “What is the sum of good government?”  Would there be a general consensus?

     If our founding fathers were asked that question, they would answer without hesitation:  Government should be limited to protecting the security of the nation and ensuring “domestic Tranquility.”

     Reflecting that prevailing role for government, Thomas Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address in 1801, said it best:  “Still one thing more, fellow citizens–a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.  This is the sum of good government.”

     Would most Americans agree with Thomas Jefferson?  Some few indeed are “coming around” to Jefferson’s view of government.  Nevertheless, the question remains:  “Are a majority of Americans really deeply committed to the principle of Constitutional, limited government and consequent dismantling of the welfare state?”

     If Americans really are committed, in this “Second Revolution,” to downsizing big government, they will willingly “pull their collective hands” out of the public trough.  They will raise their voices to either eliminate or privatize all federal entitlements:  Medicare, Food Stamps, Unemployment Compensation, Medicaid, Social Security, Farm Income Subsidies, etc.  They will agree with Benjamin Franklin: “…I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion about the means.  I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”  They will say “amen” to Franklin’s view:  “They that can give up essential liberty to gain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

     Our founding fathers were wary of governmental power and government largess.  They subscribed to Lord Acton’s dictum.  “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

     Thus, they determined at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to separate and disperse the power of the federal government by creating by a system of checks and balances - the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of our government.  Quoting Jefferson again, “In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

     Our founders were principled men committed to the ideas and ideals of economic   and political freedom.  They understood that “The history of liberty is the history of limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it”  (Woodrow Wilson).

     But clearly a federal government that consumes about 25% of the nation’s output (GDP); that has run up a national debt that has reached 5.6 trillion dollars in 2001; and that requires Americans to spend at least 6.0 billion hours, at an estimated cost of $660 billion to the economy, just to complete paperwork for federal taxes, has broken those constitutional chains on governmental power!

     What went wrong?  Why is a “Second Revolution” needed today?

     The answer, in part, is that the Great Depression of the 1930s dramatically revolutionized the political and economic ideas of most Americans.  Before the Depression era, laissez faire was the order of the day.  People did not believe, in general, that the government had the responsibility to relieve individual suffering or business failures, or that the government must actively manage the economy.  Government redistribution schemes and entitlements would have appalled most citizens.  President Grover Cleveland, for instance, emphasized this philosophy of government when he said in 1887, “Though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”

     But the tragedy of the Great Depression changed all that.  The Great Depression was perceived to be a “failure of capitalism.” (In reality, government caused the depression by its policies.)  Government involvement was thus considered essential to relieve suffering and market failures.  Moreover, a “new economics,” replacing classical economic verities, emerged.  Keynesian macroeconomics, named after its founder  John Maynard Keynes,  revolutionized the Western world.  Keynes theoretically justified budget deficits, monetary debasement, and government intervention in the economy.  Almost immediately politicians embraced his ideas.  The age of inflation, mounting deficits, and intrusive big government had begun in earnest.

     Keynesian economics swept aside the Jeffersonian view about government deficits and debt:  “I place economy among the first and most important of republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared.”  In a letter to a friend, Jefferson wrote:  “The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding [debt], is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”

     The first decade of the 21st century will reveal whether a “Second Revolution” is underway and rooted in the “First Revolution” – that the sum of good government is to defend our nation against foreign enemies, to preserve order at home, and to mediate our disputes.  The national media demonstrate daily that many Americans still prefer government largess and entitlements.  In fact more than 90 million Americans benefit directly from one or several transfer programs.  And certainly few Americans are aware that Keynesian economics has long been refuted in theory and in practice, since it was built on fallacious premises as demonstrated in Henry Hazlitt’s brilliant 1959 work, The Failure of the New Economics.

     It is high time for Americans to grasp the knowledge, understanding and wisdom of our Founding Fathers.  They need to renounce the legacy of big government that was generated in the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Government beyond Constitutional bounds – unlimited government – is both threatening our freedoms and our standard of living.  Americans need to study and grasp the profound words of Thomas Jefferson in 1821:  “Were we directed from Washington when to sow and to reap, we should soon want bread.”  When they do, good government will return to America.

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