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President Obama on the Role of Government

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In his speech last week from the East Room of the White House to the American people on deficit reduction and debt-ceiling negotiations, President Obama inadvertently presented us with his view of the role of government:

We all want a government that lives within its means, but there are still things we need to pay for as a country — things like new roads and bridges; weather satellites and food inspection; services to veterans and medical research.

Many times when someone, and especially a politician, says “we” he really means “I,” and is just trying to make it look like many others share his particular point of view. But I believe that when the president said that “we all want” a government that will do these things he was correct. The view that the federal government should build new roads and bridges, design, build, and launch weather satellites, perform food inspections, provide services to veterans, and undertake or fund medical research is widely held by most members of Congress, government bureaucrats, politicians of both parties, Americans of all political persuasions, and federal contractors who benefit from these things.

Philosophical arguments against the federal government’s doing these things because they violate the principle of limited government have always been made by libertarians and occasionally been made by conservatives.

Although not discounting the importance of these philosophical arguments, there is a simple way to show that role of the federal government is a limited one that does not extend to paying for roads and bridges, weather satellites, food inspection, medical research, and most services to veterans as envisioned by the president.

Often blatantly violated or quietly ignored, even as it is held up as the authority in all matters relating to the government, the Constitution — certainly neither a perfect nor a libertarian document — is nevertheless central to the president’s assertions of the proper role of the federal government.

All members of Congress, the ones who appropriate taxpayer money to pay for every new federally funded road and bridge, weather satellite, food inspection, service to veterans, and medical research, take the following oath of office:

I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

The president, the one who signs into law all congressional appropriations bills, takes the following oath of office:

I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

So, what does the Constitution say about roads, bridges, weather satellites, food inspection, services to veterans, and medical research? Very little if it says anything at all. Article I, section 8 of the Constitution grants power to the federal government to do certain things in eighteen very brief paragraphs.

On food inspection and medical research the Constitution is silent. Clearly, then, the federal government is not constitutionally authorized to perform or fund food inspections or undertake or fund medical research. The federal government shouldn’t have anything to do with food inspections or medical research for the simple reason that the government shouldn’t have anything to do with any inspections or research. But this prohibition goes even deeper than this. The federal government has no authority to subsidize farmers, issue nutrition guidelines, make food pyramids, promote or demonize certain foods, ban unpasteurized dairy products, regulate food production and labeling, or encourage healthy eating. And neither does the federal government have the authority to require medical licensing, regulate medical schools, restrict organ sales or donations, mandate and/or provide vaccinations, fund HIV/AIDS prevention initiatives, monitor the manufacture and sale of medical devices, regulate the medical insurance industry, or fund anyone’s health care or medical treatment.

The closest thing in the Constitution to the federal government’s having the authority to build new roads and bridges is the power of Congress in Article I, section 8, paragraph 7, to “establish post offices and post roads.” This is certainly not what President Obama meant by “new roads and bridges.” The president was referring to what used to be called “internal improvements.” In the early years of the country, there was great debate between the advocates of centralized government and supporters of decentralized government. Centralizers favored Henry Clay’s “American System” of protectionist tariffs (mercantilism), centralized banking (inflation), and internal improvements (corporate welfare, subsidies to politically favored businesses, and wasteful and inefficient federal public-works boondoggles).

President James Madison vetoed an “internal improvements” bill in 1817 because he considered it unconstitutional:

I am not unaware of the great importance of roads and canals and the improved navigation of water courses, and that a power in the National Legislature to provide for them might be exercised with signal advantage to the general prosperity. But seeing that such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution, and believing that it can not be deduced from any part of it without an inadmissible latitude of construction and reliance on insufficient precedents; believing also that the permanent success of the Constitution depends on a definite partition of powers between the General and the State Governments, and that no adequate landmarks would be left by the constructive extension of the powers of Congress as proposed in the bill, I have no option but to withhold my signature from it, and to cherishing the hope that its beneficial objects may be attained by a resort for the necessary powers to the same wisdom and virtue in the nation which established the Constitution in its actual form and providently marked out in the instrument itself a safe and practicable mode of improving it as experience might suggest.

Obviously, weather satellites weren’t in existence when the Constitution was written, but if the Constitution doesn’t even authorize the federal government to make important internal improvements like constructing canals, roads, and bridges, then it certainly doesn’t sanction government weather satellites.

That federal government should provide services to the nation’s veterans on the surface seems reasonable. After all, there are six paragraphs in Article I, section 8, of the Constitution that relate in some way to the military:

To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;

To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;

To provide and maintain a navy;

To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;

To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

The problem with most of the services provided by the government to veterans is that there shouldn’t be the need for such services in the first place. Nowhere does the Constitution authorize the United States to go abroad searching for monsters to destroy or otherwise fight foreign wars. And certainly not undeclared, immoral, and senseless military adventures like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We shouldn’t have tens of thousands of veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, missing limbs, severed spinal cords, or third-degree burns. We shouldn’t have veterans killing themselves and others. We shouldn’t have veterans who can’t hold down a job. We shouldn’t have veterans who can’t function in society. We shouldn’t have veterans with broken families. The services required by veterans would be greatly diminished if the military were used strictly in the defense of the United States.

Although President Obama was right, the fact that “we” want the federal government to build our roads, keep us informed about the weather, inspect our food, service our veterans, and fund our medical research doesn’t mean that it is proper or constitutional for the government to do so. And as President Gerald Ford said in an address to a joint session of Congress: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”

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