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Ask Not

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John McCain tells people he is the one presidential hopeful “who can inspire young people to commit themselves to causes greater than their own self-interest.” I will resist wondering whether the cause McCain has in mind is, well, McCain.

No doubt this standard line of McCain’s is regarded as mere boilerplate, a trademark slogan no one really listens to it. When people first heard it, they probably were reminded of President John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural-speech passage, which one wag paraphrased as “Ask not what I can do for you. Ask what you can do for me.” (The bumper sticker on my car says, “Ask not what your country can force other people to do for you.”)

But we make a mistake if we let McCain’s line go unexamined. It says something about the man-many things. It says that McCain lacks an understanding of the distinctively American conception of government. What business is it of the state’s to provide causes for the people? The U.S. Constitution is silent on the matter. The Declaration of Independence, on which the Constitution stands, affirms our inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There’s nothing in the document about “greater” causes. This should lead us to believe that the cause to which each of us chooses to dedicate himself is a private matter. Government should have nothing to say about it. As the Founders understood the matter, government’s sole job was to keep the peace so that people could make their choices unmolested. McCain’s line, then, symbolizes his acceptance of a, frankly, un-American expansion of government into our lives.

George W. Bush also has trouble locating the boundary between government and private life. He’s called for “prosperity with a purpose.” A purpose? And just who will be selecting this purpose, Governor? He’s also pledged federal tax money to local school districts that want to promote “character education.” Pardon me, but I thought “conservatives” believe that teaching the virtues of character is the province of the family.

That Al Gore and Bill Bradley know no limits on government hardly requires demonstration.

In all of history, no power-seeker ever said, “Ladies and gentlemen, as head of the government I aspire only to maintain the peace so that each of you is free to seek your own happiness, pursue fulfilling careers, enjoy satisfying friendships, fall in love, raise children, and participate in your freely chosen communities. I promise to leave you alone. I will respect your property and your privacy. All I ask is that you respect the same rights of others.”

Why is that? Maybe heading up such a limited government doesn’t appeal to alpha males. Or maybe such a slimmed-down president wouldn’t feel that he’s “making a difference.”

Individual liberty and self-interest are impediments to power, so it is no surprise that leaders (with few exceptions) have always summoned people to causes “greater” than themselves. Adolf Hitler was the model of such a politician. He denounced self-interest repeatedly: “The wishes and the selfishness of the individual must appear as nothing and submit,” he said. “Every form of individualism sets up the Ego as the highest value, thus stunting morality.” “The Aryan is not greatest in his mental qualities as such, but in the extent of his willingness to put all his abilities in the service of the community…. He willingly subordinates his own ego to the life of the community and, if the hour demands, even sacrifices it.”

The leaders of the Bolshevik revolution were no different. “The private life is dead in Russia,” they declared. Similar things can be found in the words of Stalin, Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, and Fidel Castro.

No, McCain and his fellow presidential aspirants don’t want to be fuehrers or supreme leaders. But neither do they want to be presidents as Washington, Madison, and Jefferson conceived that office. Limited government is dead in America. Is the private life next?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.