Two articles in the New York Times last week exemplify perfectly why our nation is in such bad shape. Both articles concerned the devastation from Hurricane Sandy. The first was a Times editorial, entitled “A Big Storm Requires Big Government.” The other article was in the form of an op-ed entitled “Grover Cleveland’s Hurricane” by Matthew Algeo.
The thrust of both pieces was that Hurricane Sandy proved that the nation really needs big government in general and FEMA in particular. Without FEMA and big government, the argument goes, there is no way that people in a free society could cope with emergencies and crises.
Actually, however, in the process of praising FEMA, Algeo did Americans a great service. He criticized President Grover Cleveland for having denied federal disaster relief to hurricane victims in the latter part of the 19th century. He also pointed out that Cleveland vetoed a welfare bill for Texas farmers who were suffering a severe drought.
Why is that a service to Americans? Because it bursts the myth that is inculcated into every American schoolchild — that America’s system has always been the same. Americans are made to believe that myth because the last thing statists want them to do is to start wondering why our American ancestors chose a different system than the one that modern-day Americans chose. In fact, in their haste to publish an article criticizing Grover Cleveland and his selfishness, I can’t help but wonder if the Times failed to realize that the article it was publishing, at the same time, was bursting one of the government’s most prized myths.
As Algeo implicitly points out, Americans have lived under two different economic systems and social orders. Our American ancestors chose a way of life in which everyone kept everything he earned. There was no income tax. That wasn’t an accident. Our ancestors believed that a free society necessarily entailed the right of people to keep the fruits of their earnings.
There was also no requirement that people do the “right” thing with their money. They were free to do whatever they wanted with it. They could save, donate, invest, or spend it. The choice was theirs. Our ancestors believed that that’s part of what living in a free society is all about.
Cleveland’s position simply reflected what America was once all about — what a free society was once all about. As Algeo points out, Cleveland stated, “Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.” That’s not only what Cleveland believed. It was the philosophy that undergirded American society through the 1800s.
Not so today. Having born and raised under a welfare state, many Americans believe they are entitled to be taken care of by the government, When things go wrong, the first response is, “I have a right to federal money,” which is really nothing more than saying, “I have a right to your money, thanks to the taxing power of the IRS and the welfare function of the federal bureaucracies.”
What happened before Americans adopted the income-tax, welfare-state way of life? When government was prohibited from taking care of people, people responded by figuring out ways to help others. But unlike the welfare state, which is founded on force, Americans relied on the voluntary actions of people. They believed that that was what genuine charity was all about.
In fact, Algeo himself alludes to this phenomenon. When Cleveland refused to provide federal money for the hurricane victims, Algeo tells us what happened: “Into the void stepped Clara Barton, the 72-year-old nurse who had founded the American Red Cross 12 years earlier. Almost single-handedly, Ms. Barton organized relief efforts — distributing food and clothing and supervising the construction of new homes (first for widows and the infirm). Her heroic work, especially in the South, saved countless thousands from disease and starvation.”
Imagine that! One person accomplishing so much! And think about this: If Americans had embraced statism from the start of the nation, there never would have been a Red Cross. After all, why would Clara Barton have started the Red Cross if the government was already serving a paternalistic role in American life?
So what happened? What caused the system to change?
American statists hated the principles of economic liberty on which America had been founded. They hated the idea that people should be free to keep the fruits of their earnings and decide what to do with them. They wanted a system in which the government confiscated people’s income and wealth and redistributed it to others. Although today they hate the label, back then many statists didn’t mind being called socialists. They knew that that’s what they were.
Over time, the statists prevailed. They were able to engraft their cancerous philosophy onto America’s constitutional order. They got their income tax amendment in 1913. They got their Federal Reserve Act in the same year. And then Franklin Roosevelt, seizing upon an economic crisis, one that had been caused by the Fed, ushered in the socialist, fascist, interventionist system under which we now live, all under the false pretense that he was “saving free enterprise.”
And then there is the out-of-control federal spending, which increasingly saddles the American people with ever-growing federal debt. But of course, every time someone suggests that federal spending be curtailed even by a tiny percentage, the statists rise up and scream in horror, “Oh, no, the nation couldn’t survive if that particular dole is reduced!”
It’s no different with FEMA. Algeo and the Times suggest that FEMA is one of those vitally important agencies whose budget could never be reduced, much less ended. But wouldn’t they say the same about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, education grants, auto bailouts, the FDIC, and every other socialistic program? Would they say that even a minute reduction in the budgets of the CIA, the military, and the rest of the warfare state would grievously threaten “national security”?
Except for libertarians, the welfare state has severely damaged the principles of self-reliance, can-do, and independence within the American people. Algeo and the Times’ editorial board provide irrefutable proof that Cleveland was right: Federal aid has encouraged the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and has certainly weakened the sturdiness of our national character.”