The Heart of political Disagreement


By: Robert E. Meyer

Nearly all disputes about political economic issues, boil down to differences in philosophies regarding the nature of the legitimate role of government. When I’m discussing an economic issue with someone and there is disagreement, my first question to them is always about what the role of government should be. My second question is about how they justify their answer to the first question. What is the basis for their beliefs about the jurisdiction of government? It is interesting that when Noah Webster published his first dictionary in 1828, the word “government” denoted internal self-control, whereas today when we speak of government, it invokes the image of the federal institution that takes care of us, or at least ought to do so.

We have all had the biblical injunction quoted to us “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…” Before we can give heed to that maxim though, we must know what rightfully belongs to Caesar, and if Caesar is justified in ruling over all domains and spheres of life. Our Founding Fathers emphasized limited government, particularly as it pertained to the federal level. Along these lines, two clauses from the U.S. Constitution have been given a virtually unlimited purview. The first, The General Welfare Clause has given rise to the liberal political mandate that the federal government’s foremost duty is to correct any perceived social or economic injustice. The second, The Commerce Clause, has been used by the courts to give the president and congress unbridled power to meddle in economic affairs. The application of both has become so broad that it practically invalidates the concept of limited government altogether.

The Federalist Papers were essay documents written by founding luminaries James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay using pseudonyms. The purpose was to persuade the common people to ratify the Constitution, by offering a comprehensive commentary on the meaning of many of its clauses. Madison, here, and in other writing, explained the limitations of “General Welfare.”
“[Congressional jurisdiction of power] is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any.” – James Madison, Federalist 14

“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.” – James Madison, 1792

“With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.” – James Madison in letter to James Robertson
We can now turn our attention to the Commerce Clause. George Mason University economist Walter Williams offer a historical synopsis in the following paragraph of his essay “Commerce Clause Abuse.”

“For most of our history, the Courts foiled congressional attempts to use the “commerce clause” to sabotage the clear meaning of the Constitution, particularly the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. The Courts began caving in to congressional tyranny during the 1930s. That tyranny was sealed in 1942 by a little known U.S. Supreme ruling in Wickard v. Filburn. Mr. Filburn was a small farmer in Ohio. The Department of Agriculture had set production quotas. Mr. Filburn harvested nearly 12 acres of wheat above his government allotment. He argued that the excess wheat was unrelated to commerce since he grew it for his own use. He was fined anyway. The Court reasoned that had he not grown the extra wheat he would have had to purchase wheat; therefore, he was indirectly affecting interstate commerce.”

This is the current legal approach to lawsuits against implementation of President Obama’s health care bill, which have been adjudicated in various federal courts. The basic legal complaint asserted is that the federal government cannot force citizens to buy health insurance under penalty of civil law. Some have argued in response that we require persons to buy automotive insurance protection if they choose to drive a motor vehicle. The obvious distinction is that this mandate is exercised at the state level of government, not the federal level, and is thus consistent with the constitutional principle of Federalism(the distinctions in jurisdiction and powers delegated between state and federal levels of government).

A second aspect of the fundamental disagreement over the role of government is a rooted in stereotypes about political parties. We often hear, for example, that liberals are for the little guy, but conservatives are for big business, etc. These are your father’s or grandfather’s caricatures’. I tend to think that most politicians are out for themselves, but have different views and methods about how to assure their perpetual incumbency. There are notable exceptions–those people are the true statesmen.

We also hear taunts about which political party is the most unethical. When there is a moral failing by a particular member in congress, it is customary to be taken to task by acquaintances of the opposite political persuasion. I have never understood this tactic. Personally, I am a conservative because I believe that a conservative political platform, though imperfect, is the best way to govern humanity. I vote for conservative politicians because of their promises to uphold conservative tenets. When they fail to do so, I am disappointed and frustrated, but no more inclined to chuck conservative principles as some antagonists would insist I do. Individuals are fickle–principles are not.

I have never believed in man-made utopias. People who think that government of men, by men and toward men, can dispense with all injustices, wind up creating worse disparities than the ones attempt to alleviate.

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