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Two Illegitimate Functions of Government

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The question every American needs to ponder and discuss is one that our American ancestors were debating at the inception of our nation: What should be the role of the federal government in American society?

That was how we ended up with the Constitution. The Framers didn’t want to bring into existence a government with the general power to do whatever it deemed necessary, beneficial, and wise. For one thing, they knew that the American people would never accept that type of government. But they also knew that freedom for the citizenry is nonexistent when people are living under a government of general powers.

So, the Constitution limited the powers of the federal government to the few powers that are enumerated in the Constitution. While that persuaded Americans to permit the federal government to come into existence, Americans were still not satisfied. They demanded a Bill of Rights, which really was a Bill of Prohibitions, which expressly forbade the federal government from infringing on fundamental rights and which expressly guaranteed long-established procedural rights and guarantees whenever the government tried to do bad things to people.

The fact is that Americans didn’t trust the federal government. Based on personal experience and their knowledge of history, they knew that the biggest threat to freedom that people face is not an external threat but rather the threat posed by their very own government, especially in the name of keeping them safe and secure.

That’s how America ended up with a government with no income tax or IRS, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, education grants, farm subsidies, foreign aid, Pentagon, CIA, NSA, standing army, drug laws, Federal Reserve, fiat (i.e., paper) money, and immigration controls.

Our American ancestors believed that it was not the role of government to take care of people. Charity belonged in the private sector, they believed. They also opposed empires, foreign interventions, and foreign wars.

That way of life lasted more than 100 years.

Today, of course, Americans live under an opposite type of system, one in which the federal government is (1) empowered with the task of taking care of people as part of a welfare state and (2) empowered to intervene in the affairs of other nations as part of a warfare state. One of the interesting aspects to this phenomenon is that this revolutionary change in the nature and powers of the federal government was accomplished without even the semblance of a constitutional amendment, which was the prescribed method of changing America’s governmental system in fundamental ways.

Those two fundamental changes — a welfare state way of life and a warfare state way of life — are at the root of America’s many woes.

Both functions of government—the welfare function and the warfare function—are illegitimate functions of the federal government. It was a gigantic mistake to have modified America’s governmental structure in these two major ways.

First of all, government has no more business taking care of people than it does dictating to people whether or not to attend church. What a person does with his own money is his business. When government wields the power for force people to be good and caring to others, the result is a society in which people are no longer free. Deciding whether or not to donate to others is an essential part of what freedom is all about.

Our ancestors under stood that. That’s why earlier Americans were free to keep everything they earned and decide for themselves what to do with their own earnings. That was why there was no income tax, IRS, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farms subsidies, education grants, and welfare for more than 100 years after the nation was established.

Of course, we are talking about more than just welfare-state programs — i.e., that process by which the federal government, through the IRS, takes money from people to whom it belongs in order to give it to others. The drug war is also part of the taking-care-of people syndrome. That’s the federal program that incarcerates people for doing nothing more than possessing or distributing substances that the government says are harmful to people.

Federal officials put us in jail for possessing or distributing bad substances because, they say, it’s their job to take care of us and prevent us from doing bad things to ourselves. Keep in mind that our American ancestors rejected drug laws for more than 100 years, owing to their belief that freedom necessarily entails possessing and distributing (and ingesting)whatever you want, even if harmful.

The welfare state also encompasses the countless federal rules and regulations that govern economic activity. Again, the rationale is that the government is taking care of us. A good example is the federally mandated minimum wage, which, ironically, locks out of the labor market those people whose labor is valued in the marketplace at lower than the mandated minimum. That’s an odd way of taking care of people. There was no minimum wage for more than 100 years. In fact, when states began enacting it during the Progressive Era, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional — i.e., contrary to the intent of the Americans who founded our country.

Second, the federal government has no business interfering in the affairs of other nations. Its rightful jurisdiction is the United States, not the world. There are lots of bad things that happen all over the world — e.g., dictatorships, corruption, wars, civil wars, and famines. But as John Quincy Adams said to Congress in 1821, under our system of government it is not the job of the federal government to send military and CIA forces abroad to slay such monsters. If it ever were to wield such powers, Adams said, it would fundamentally alter America’s governmental structure and her role in the world, for the worse.

Not only did the federal government not go abroad with invasions, interventions, foreign aid, or regime-change operations for more than 100 years, it actually lacked the military capability of doing so. That’s because our American ancestors vehemently opposed big, permanent, professional standing armies. That’s why there was no Pentagon, CIA, NSA, national-security establishment, and military-industrial complex for the first 150 years of America’s existence.

Look at the major problems America is facing: out-of-control federal spending and debt; an endless cyle of inflation, financial bubbles, and recessions; uncontrolled “entitlement” programs, especially Social Security and Medicare; hopeless dependency on the federal government by millions of Americans; the failed and destructive drug war that has ruined or destroyed countless lives; invasions, occupations, partnerships with dictators, torture, massive, secret surveillance schemes on the citizenry, and even a formal, institutionalized program of state-sponsored assassinations, not to mention the ever-increasing hatred for the federal government and our nation among people all over the world.

Imagine how dark things would be if there wasn’t a solution to all this. In fact, that’s why so many Americans are so despondent. They think that there’s no way out and that Americans are just permanently consigned to live lives of perpetual crisis and chaos.

But as we libertarians know, the good news is that there is a way out. All that Americans have to do is return to America’s founding principles of a limited-government republic by dismantling these two illegitimate functions of government — the welfare state and the warfare state. That’s the way—the only way — to achieve a society of peace, prosperity, harmony, and freedom.

The process begins with everyone asking, discussing, and debating that one important question: What should be the role of the federal government in American society?

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.