Imagining a day in America when individuals were treated like adults seems a far-fetched proposition to anyone who remotely follows current events. Treating constituents like dependent children has become a pastime of most members of Congress; their disdain for the voting public’s intelligence is matched only by the voting public’s equal disdain for theirs.
Though our political leader’s paternalistic mind set is increasingly clear with every new congressional session, it is probably most evident with regard to our methods of providing charity to the poor. Even some otherwise principled men have caved in on this question, unwilling to muster the fortitude to challenge the prevailing conventional wisdom. Challenging the idea of government assistance from Washington from a constitutional or even common sense standpoint has become so politically toxic that even the soundest of Congressmen will shy away from calling its legitimacy into question. Sometimes changes in our collective ideology can take place so incrementally that we must pick a specific event in the past and view it through the lens of today’s prevailing perspective.
In 1854, a bill from Congress to provide charity for the mentally ill came across the desk of then-President Franklin Pierce. In a move that would qualify as political suicide today, Pierce vetoed the bill. He explained his reasoning by stating, “I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for the public charity.” And he took this a step further, saying it “would be contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded.” If a contemporary president did such a deed, many would assume he too qualified for the benefits in that very bill. Obligatory shots would be launched at how Mr. Pierce is heartless, callous, and no doubt soulless; we could picture the diatribes and epithets with minimal difficulty. Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” segment would have a new villain. But examples abound of our earlier Presidents making similar such vetoes and statements, acts that have become nonexistent since at least the Wilson administration.
Understanding why Americans have become so comfortable with governmental “aid”, particularly at the federal level, over the course of the last century is undoubtedly a complex issue. Some blame can be placed on the New Deal programs instituted by FDR, while much of the rest is attributable to the debt inducing nature of our decision to ditch the gold standard. This acted as a regulator on the “charitable” impulses of government. But the massive deficits brought on by a social welfare state were no longer seen as a drain on the economy absent a gold standard. After all, as a recent Vice President famously informed/chided us, “Deficits don’t matter.” Even worse, turning debt into a money-producing venture further encouraged the government to operate in the red. Printing or borrowing the difference made a process of giving once handled by private individuals quite palatable to fans of government meddling. Being charitable with the taxpayers’ money not only makes an ambitious congressman look good, but now the consequences it would have entailed are no longer immediately present. The day of reckoning with massive deficits is always kicked down the road.
A more simplistic explanation would be the confusion of many Americans over what the correct role of government is. Currently, the only question Congress asks before appropriating funds is whether or not it will make the American people angry. If the answer is no, they will proceed in spite of any constitutional restraints. If the answer is affirmative, then a follow up question will be asked: just how angry? Unless they foresee a major backlash, the money will usually be doled out hand over fist.
This apathy on the part of a once vigilant citizenry can be pinned largely on the lack of in depth study of constitutionalism in our school system. The teaching of our Constitution’s original intent and the raising of awareness regarding the foundation of our liberties have become collateral damage of progressivism’s century long influence on American education. Anything smacking of restraint on the government is consistently downplayed in our classrooms.
For the Founders, the legitimate role of the federal government was cut and dry: the protection of life, liberty and property were not merely paramount, but the beginning and end of government’s scope. The Constitution, as President Pierce correctly observed, gave no authority for charitable giving to Congress (or any other branch of the federal government for that matter). These words would never have been uttered by the Franklin who resided in the White House almost a full century later; the New Deal legislation solidified the idea of a strong armed, benevolent government in Washington. With the Constitution and Federalist Papers staying untaught in our schools, many of us simply nod on our heads when congressional actions are justified under the guise of the Commerce Clause.
Whatever its root causes, the politicization of charitable giving has done much to depersonalize the relationship between the giver and receiver of one’s assistance. Once a function of a religious or other nongovernmental institution aiming to help the needy, many now view their tax tab as a substitute for compassionate giving. Aside from being unconstitutional and markedly inefficient, this form of expansive government breaks down the voluntary nature of charity that used to leave so many feeling fulfilled. C.S. Lewis summed up the drawbacks of this form of government when he said “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”