Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Big government erodes rights?
October 26, 2012
Expect to row upstream against strong currents if you defend government’s role in protecting citizen’s liberties. Critics flood Uncle Sam with complaints, saying the federal government robs citizens of their rights.
Suspicion infects our national DNA, polluting any notion of what good federal government achieves.
Commentator E. J. Dionne, in his book “Our Divided Political Heart,” makes a convincing case that partisan battles over the role and responsibility of government erupt because our nation no longer agrees on what happened at its founding.
Those who distrust government regard the Revolutionary War as a chronicle of patriots who agreed with Thomas Paine’s catchy motto: “The government is best which governs least.” Their battle against King George III started as a tax revolt against encroaching government, we are told. Founders wanted to keep oppressive government off their backs, assert tea party advocates.
Dionne corrects this faulty reading of our nation’s birth. Those fighting the Revolutionary War saw the emerging nation as “we the people” who “were able to see democratic government as a constructive force in our national life and to use it in creative ways.”
Yes, minority voices after the Revolutionary War wanted to keep decision-making at the local level. Fisher Ames, an evangelical Massachusetts congressman, distrusted top-heavy government. Rotund Uncle Sam crushed citizens’ liberties, warned Ames. If the federal government fattened up, he complained, all that remained would provide “the velocity of its (America’s) fall.” Dionne in his book says today’s tea party thinkers, with their dire warnings against big government, Ames’ successors. They “cast government as inherently oppressive, necessarily wasteful, and nearly always damaging to our nation’s growth and prospect.”
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During the dark days of the Roman Empire, when Caesar oppressed vassals, the Apostle Paul voiced confidence in government. Wouldn’t Fisher Ames and the tea party get apoplexy, reading about biblical support of government? “Pay all the authorities of God their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7).
If the federal government shrinks, will personal liberties be preserved? U.S. history after the Revolutionary War corrects this mistaken conviction.
Before the 1787 Constitutional Convention, weak state governments made the U.S. financially vulnerable. They abhorred compromise. Working for their exclusive benefit, local dignitaries passed enormous tariffs on goods transported between states. After the Revolutionary War ended in 1781, the country plunged into an economic depression lasting eight years. In record numbers, small businesses declared bankruptcy. European nations backed off from lending to the United States.
John Adams warned that our gravest enemy wasn’t big government. Rather, it was too little government, which deprived citizens of their rights. Individual liberties weren’t protected.
“Mobocracy,” lamented Adams, reigned terror over the nation because citizens who distrusted government acted like vigilantes. Mobs took the law into their own hands. They closed city halls and barricaded courthouses when judges ruled against them. These “Regulators,” as angry citizens dubbed themselves, threatened local anarchy if government didn’t back them.
During the mid-1780s, the national army virtually disbanded. Some disgusted congressman walked away from their jobs. The loosely-drawn confederation of government, initially set up to guard states’ rights, proved ineffective. Citizens lost rights.
With clarity and conviction, James Madison expressed the utter necessity for a new constitution. It set building blocks for an efficient, effective federal government.
Writing in the winter of 1787, Madison didn’t blink at the miserable shape of the U.S. tottering on minimal government. “The present system,” he declared, “neither has nor deserves advocates, and if some very strong props are not applied will quickly tumble to the ground.”
“No money is paid,” he groused, “into the public treasury. No respect is paid to federal authority. Not a single state complies with the requisitions, several pass over them in silence and some positively reject them. … It is not possible that a government can last long under these circumstances.”
We exercise choices in this 2012 presidential campaign. We can support government, as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) believed in, which taxes to pay for a civilized society. Or, our nation will become less civilized as the few who distrust Uncle Sam rule the many, denying them personal liberties.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.