Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. vice president, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
America Is Exceptional — But Now There Is an Effort to Make It Ordinary
Our society is unique in history — in other words “exceptional.” Ronald Reagan described it as a “City on a Hill.” Now, we confront an effort to make it ordinary, to build walls, promote fear of strangers, and promote a narrow nationalism. Perhaps those who would make America small and narrow do not understand what generations of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, have meant by the term “American exceptionalism.”
America has never simply been another country. From the very beginning, its vision of Liberty attracted people of every ethnic background and religion. At the time of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote:
“If there is a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least expected, it is America. Made up, as it is, of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the Union of such a people was impracticable. But by the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires and the parts are brought into cordial unison.”
In Redburn, (1849), Herman Melville spelled out a vision of America which is as true today as it was then:
“There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, should forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. Be he Englishman, German, Dane or Scot: the European who scoffs at an American . . . stands in danger of judgment. We are not a narrow tribe of men. . . . No: our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world.”
To make America simply another country, concerned only with its narrow self-interest, is to reverse our history. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:
“France was a land. England was a people, but America, having about it still the quality of an idea, was harder to utter — it was the graves at Shiloh, and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”
Today, our country is the most powerful and most prosperous in the world. We defeated Communism, Fascism and Nazism. Of course, there are always challenges to be confronted. ISIS threatens the West with terrorism, and it is important that it be defeated. But the promotion of fear by some in Washington is irrational. In his first Inaugural Address, in the midst of the Great Depression, as democracy was collapsing in Europe, Franklin D. Roosevelt told the country that:
“. . . the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Now, our new administration stirs fear with no basis for doing so. Scholars of the subject say they can think of no previous president so enamored as Mr. Trump of scare tactics. Historian Robert Dallek says, “If he frightens people, it puts him in the driver’s seat. These are what I think can be described as demagogic tendencies.”
There is nothing conservative about what we are hearing from the White House in recent days. Of the catchphrase “America First,” the antecedents of which go back to keeping the U.S. out of the war against Nazism, which many who now use it do not understand, conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer writes:
“Some claim that putting America first is a reassertion of American exceptionalism. On the contrary, it is the antithesis. It makes America no different from all the other countries that define themselves by a particularist blood-and-soil nationalism. What made America exceptional, unique in the world, was defining its own national interest beyond its narrow economic and security needs to encompass the safety and prosperity of a vast array of allies. A free world, markedly open trade and mutual defense was President Truman’s vision, shared by every president since. Until now. . . . For seventy years, we sustained an international system of open commerce and democratic alliances that has enabled America and the West to grow and thrive. Global leadership is what made America great. We abandon it at our peril.”
The people around presidential adviser Stephen Bannon and the “alt-right” philosophy he promoted on the Breitbart news website, have more in common with the right-wing racial nationalism to be found in European parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France than anything in our own history. To what degree President Trump has embraced such views, remains less than clear. But many traditional conservatives see all of this as a dramatic departure from American exceptionalism. New York Times columnist David Brooks notes that:
“We are in the midst of a Great War of national identity. We thought we were in an ideological battle against radical Islam, but we are really fighting the national myths spread by Trump, Bannon, Putin, Le Pen and Farage. We can argue about immigration and trade and foreign policy, but nothing will be right until we restore and revive the meaning of America. Are we still the purpose-driven experiment Lincoln described and Emma Lazarus wrote about: assigned by providence to spread democracy and prosperity; to welcome the stranger. . . . Or are we just another nation, hunkered down in a fearful world?”
In 1866, Lord Acton, the British liberal leader, said that America was becoming the “distant magnet.” Apart from “the millions who have crossed the ocean, who shall reckon with the millions whose hearts and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun is in the West.”
America has been a nation much loved. Germans have loved Germany. Frenchmen have loved France. Swedes have loved Sweden. This, of course, is only natural. But America has been beloved not only by native Americans, but by men and women throughout the world who have yearned for freedom. America dreamed a bigger dream than any nation in the history of man. Now, in Washington, that dream is being replaced with something far different. The Republican Party, which always embraced the idea of American exceptionalism, one to which Ronald Reagan and conservatives were particularly committed, now has a choice. Will it abandon its vision of America as exceptional and adopt the very ordinary nationalism that now is manifesting itself in the White House, or will it maintain its belief in an America that is, indeed, something new and positive in history? All of us will be losers if the vision of America embraced by the Founding Fathers and generations of Americans is abandoned by those whose notion of America is narrow and completely ahistorical.
The Strange Assault on Thomas Jefferson at the University He Founded
At the University of Virginia, its founding father, Thomas Jefferson, is under attack by some students and faculty.
After the November presidential election, university president Theresa Sullivan wrote a letter in which she quoted Jefferson in expressing the hope that students from the University would help our republic. Sullivan wrote:
“By coincidence, on this exact day 191 years ago — November 9, 1825, in the first year of classes at the University of Virginia — Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that U.V. students ‘. . . are not of ordinary significance only; they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.’ I encourage today’s U.V. students to embrace that responsibility.”
Almost immediately, a response was drafted by Noelle Brand, an assistant professor of psychology, who declared that Thomas Jefferson “was deeply involved in the racist history of this university” and he noted that:
“We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it. For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality, and civility that you are attempting to convey.”
Approximately 500 students and faculty signed the letter, with more adding their names later. President Sullivan responded that:
“Quoting Jefferson (or any historical figure) does not imply an endorsement of all the social structures and beliefs of his time, such as slavery and the exclusion of women and people of color from the university.”
Sullivan acknowledged “the university’s complicated Jeffersonian legacy.” She pointed out that:
“Today’s leaders are women and men, members of all racial and ethnic groups, members of the LGBTQ community and adherents of all religious traditions. All of them belong to today’s University of Virginia whose founders most influential and quoted words were ‘all men are created equal.’ Those words were inherently contradictory in an era of slavery, but because of their power they became the fundamental expression of a more genuine equality today.”
What President Sullivan’s critics are doing is applying the standards of 2016 to 1787, when the Constitution was written, and finding our ancestors seriously deficient. They are guilty of what the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood called “the sin of contemporaneity,” of applying the standards of our own time to those who have come before. It is possible to look at the colonial period from both the vantage point of the period that preceded it as well as the period which has followed. This is instructive when considering the question of slavery.
Slavery played an important part in many ancient civilizations. Indeed, most people of the ancient world regarded slavery as a natural condition of life, one that could befall anyone at any time, having nothing to do with race. It has existed almost universally through history among peoples of every level of material culture — among nomadic pastoralists in Asia, hunting societies of North American Indians and sea people such as the Norsemen. The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the 4th millennium B.C. The Sumerian symbol for slave in cuneiform writing suggests “foreign.”
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, not a single nation had made slavery illegal. As they looked back through history, the framers saw slavery as an accepted and acceptable institution. It was not until 1792 that Denmark became the first Western nation to abolish the slave trade. In 1807, the British Parliament passed a bill outlawing the slave trade — and slavery was abolished in British colonies between 1834 and 1840. France freed the slaves in its colonies in 1848. Spain ended slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873, and in Cuba in 1886. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.
The respected British historian of classical slavery, Moses L. Finley, writes:
“The cities in which individual freedom reached its highest expression — most obviously Athens — were cities in which chattel slavery flourished.”
The same is true of Ancient Rome. Plutarch notes that on a single day in the year 167 B.C., 150,000 slaves were sold in a single market.
Our Judeo-Christian tradition was also one that accepted the legitimacy of slavery. The Old Testament regulates the relationship between master and slave in great detail. In Leviticus (XXV: 39-55), God instructs the Children of Israel to enslave the heathen and their progeny forever, but to employ poor Jews as servants only, and to free them and their children on the year of Jubilee. There is no departure from this approach to slavery in the New Testament. St. Paul urges slaves to obey their masters with full hearts and without obfuscation.
What is historically unique is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in 1787, but that so many of the leading men of the American colonies of that day wanted to eliminate it — and pressed vigorously to do so.
Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris were in the forefront of opposition to slavery.
One of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention related to the African slave trade. George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal. He said:
“Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.”
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges made by Thomas Jefferson against King George III and his predecessors was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves. When Jefferson was first elected to the Virginia legislature at the age of twenty-five, his first political act was to begin the elimination of slavery. Though unsuccessful, he tried to further encourage the emancipation process by writing into the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” In his draft of a constitution for Virginia, he provided that all slaves would be emancipated in that state by 1800, and that any child born in Virginia after 1801, would be born free. This, however, was not adopted.
In his draft, instructions to the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress of 1774, published as “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Jefferson charged the British crown with having prevented the colonies from abolishing slavery in the interest of avarice and greed:
“The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire of these colonies, where it was, unhappily, introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa. Yet our repeated efforts to effect this by prohibition, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his Majesty’s negative.”
Thomas Jefferson and the other framers of the Constitution were imperfect men and it is not difficult to discover their personal flaws. But these imperfect men did an extraordinary thing in creating a new nation, which now has the world’s oldest continuous form of government. Professor Forrest McDonald points out that:
“The framers were guided by principles but not by formulas. They understood that no form or system of government is universally desirable or workable; instead, if government is to be viable, it must be made to conform to human nature and to the genius of the people — to their customs, morals, habits, institutions, aspirations. The framers did just that, and thereby used old materials to create a new order for the ages.”
While the majority of the framers of the Constitution were opposed to slavery, a small minority supported it and if it were outlawed the union never would have come into being. Thus, they compromised. What they did do was outlaw the slave trade as of 1808 and Congress, in 1787, outlawed slavery in the new territories by passing the Northwest Ordinance. It was, we must remember, the framers of the Constitution who were the first duly constituted authority in the Western world to act decisively against slavery.
One wonders how much of this history is known by those who wrote and signed the letter calling upon University of Virginia President Theresa Sullivan to stop quoting Thomas Jefferson. To her credit, President Sullivan understands the distinction between intrinsic principle and historical personality. To hold leaders of the past to the standards of the present time is to be guilty of missing the larger message of our history. Jefferson and our other Founding Fathers set in place a system of government that permitted growth and change. While they may not have shared the views of today, neither did Socrates, Plato, Dante, or Shakespeare. Shall we only be able to quote those from the 20th and 21st centuries who share the standards we only ourselves came to accept a very short time ago? This would be “contemporaneity” gone mad.
Thomas Sowell Ends His Column, But His Intellectual Legacy Will Only Grow
Thomas Sowell, one of America’s foremost public intellectuals and most outspoken black conservatives, submitted his final column in December after 25 years in syndication. At 86, he said, he thought the time had come to retire from this enterprise. Hopefully, his other literary pursuits will continue.
For more than 50 years, Sowell has published books and journals on race, economics, and government policy. He grew up in Harlem and was the first member of his family to go beyond 6th grade — eventually graduating from Harvard. A self-proclaimed Marxist in his 20s, he received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, where he studied under Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economic advocate of free markets. Sowell slowly lost faith in the ability of government to effectuate positive change in our economic life. He taught economics at Cornell and UCLA and has been a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University since 1980. (Shortly after he moved into his office at Stanford, I visited him there. I remember having dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Palo Alto, and putting a tape recorder on the table, and engaging in a lengthy interview, which was subsequently published in Human Events).
Thomas Sowell examined the history of race relations in America, and throughout the world. He questioned much of the orthodoxy to be found in intellectual circles and asked — and tried to answer — the most difficult questions. Do certain groups advance in society at varying rates because of the attitude of society toward them? Does discrimination against a given group cause it to do less well economically and educationally than those groups that do not face such external barriers?
In a landmark study, “The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective”(1983), followed by an impressive succession of important books, Sowell uses an international framework to analyze group differences. Examining the experience of different groups in more than a dozen countries, he seeks to determine how much of each group’s economic fate has been due to the surrounding society and how much to internal patterns that follow the same group around the world.
The Italians in Australia and Argentina, for example, show social and economic patterns similar in many respects to those of Italians in Italy or in the United States. Chinese college students in Malaysia specialize in very much the same fields that they specialize in American colleges — a far different set of specializations from those of other groups in both countries. Germans have, similarly, concentrated in very similar industries and occupations in South America, North America, or Australia.
Analyzing the successes of each group, Sowell points to the group’s culture, which rewards some behaviors over others, as the determinant of skills, orientations and therefore economic performance. “Race may have no intrinsic significance,” he writes, “and yet be associated historically with vast cultural differences that are very consequential for economic performance.”
In Southeast Asia, for example, the overseas Chinese have been subjected to widespread discrimination. Quota systems were established in government employment and in admission to universities in Malaysia, and a “target” of 30 percent Malayan ownership in business and industry was established. In Indonesia, a 1959 law forbade the Chinese to engage in retailing in the villages. Chinese-owned rice mills were confiscated. In the Philippines, it was decreed that no new Chinese import business could be established, and Chinese establishments were closed by law.
Despite all of this, Sowell points out, the Chinese thrived. As of 1972, they owned between 50 and 95 percent of the capital in Thailand’s banking and finance industries, transportation, wholesale and retail trade, restaurants, and the import and export business. In Malaysia, the Chinese earned double the income of Malays in 1976, despite a massive government program imposing preferential treatment of Malays in the private economy. In the U.S., as in Southeast Asia, writes Sowell, “The Chinese became hated for their virtues.” Despite discrimination, the Chinese advanced rapidly in the U.S., as did the Japanese, who met similar forms of racial bigotry, including special taxes and job restrictions.
In Europe, Sowell points out, precisely the same story can be told with regard to Jews. Anti-semitism was a powerful force in many countries, yet Jews continued to advance. Although Jews were only one percent of the German population, they became 10 percent of the doctors and dentists, 17 percent of the lawyers, and won 27 percent of the Nobel Prizes awarded Germans from 1901 to 1975. In the U.S., notes Sowell:
“Although the Jewish immigrants arrived with less money than most other immigrants, their rise to prosperity was unparalleled. Working long hours at low pay, they nevertheless saved money to start their own small businesses . . . or to send a child to college. While the Jews were initially destitute in financial terms, they brought with them not only specific skills but a tradition of success and entrepreneurship which could not be confiscated or eliminated, as the Russian and Polish governments had confiscated their wealth and eliminated most of their opportunities.”
In the case of blacks in the U.S., Sowell shows that West Indians have advanced much more rapidly than native born American blacks because of major cultural differences. In the West Indies, slaves had to grow the bulk of their own food — and were able to sell what they did not need from their individual plots of land. They were given economic incentives to exercise initiative, as well as experience in buying, selling, and managing their own affairs — experiences denied to slaves in the U.S.
The two black groups — native-born Americans and West Indians — suffered the same racial discrimination, but advanced at dramatically different rates. By 1969, black West Indians earned 94 percent of the average income of Americans in general, while native blacks earned only 62 percent. Second generation West Indians in the U.S. earned 15 percent more than the average American. More than half of all black-owned businesses in New York State were owned by West Indians. The highest-ranking blacks in the New York City Police Department in 1970 were all West Indians, as were all the black judges in the city.
It is a serious mistake, Sowell believes, to ignore the fact that economic performance differences between whole races and cultures “are quite real and quite large.” Attitudes of work habits, he argues, are key ingredients of success or failure. The market rewards certain kinds of behavior, and penalizes other behavior patterns — in a color-blind manner. Blaming discrimination by others for a group’s status, he states, ignores the lessons of history.
Political efforts to address the “problems” of minorities, such as race-based affirmative action programs, usually fail, Sowell reports, because they refuse to deal with the real causes of such difficulties:
“. . . political ‘solutions’ tend to misconceive the basic issues. . . . Black civil rights leaders . . . often earn annual incomes running into hundreds of thousands of dollars, even if their programs and approaches prove futile for the larger purpose of lifting other blacks out of poverty.”
Crucial to a group’s ability to advance is the stability of its family life and the willingness to sacrifice:
“. . . more than four-fifths of all white children live with both their parents. But among black children, less than half live with both parents. . . . What is relevant is the willingness to pay a price to achieve goals. Large behavioral differences suggest that the trade-off of competing desires vary enormously among ethnic groups. . . . The complex personal and social prerequisites for a prosperous level of output are often simply glided over, and material wealth treated as having been produced somehow, with the only real question being how to distribute it justly.”
If we seek to understand group differences, it is to “human capital” that we must turn our attention, Sowell declares. The crucial question is not the fairness of its distribution but “whether society as a whole — or mankind as a whole — gains when the output of both the fortunate and the unfortunate is discouraged by disincentives.”
It is Sowell’s view that many black leaders have not served their constituencies but themselves. Instead of expressing concern over the decline of the black family, the increasing out-of-wedlock birth rate, the rise of inner-city crime — they speak only of “discrimination.” Instead of calling for an end to such government licensing laws as those that limit the number of taxicabs in cities such as New York and Philadelphia, they call for more government “make-work” jobs.
While many blame all problems within the black community on the legacy of slavery, Sowell points to the fact that more black children lived in two-parent families during slavery, Reconstruction, and the years of segregation than at the present time. He writes that:
“In reality, most black children were raised in two-parent homes even during the era of slavery, and for generations after, blacks had higher rates of marriage than whites in the early 20th century, and higher rates of labor force participation in every census from 1890 to 1950. The real causes of the very different patterns among blacks in the world of today must be sought in the 20th century, not in the era before emancipation.”
Tom Sowell has been telling the hard truth for many years, and has received much abuse for doing so. He has been a strong advocate for a genuinely color blind society, in which men and women would be judged on their individual merit, not on the basis of race. All Americans who believe in such a society, and believe that one’s view about economic, political, and other matters should be based on the facts as one sees them — not on race, religion, or ethnicity as the promoters of today’s “identity politics” would have it — should recognize what a champion of freedom Sowell has been. We will miss his regular column, but hope he will continue to share his wisdom with us. It is certain that his intellectual legacy will grow for it is based upon scholarship and a search for truth, not upon the changing needs of our political class for convenient and popular responses to the complex challenges we face. Sadly, there are too few such people among us. For a free society to thrive, we need more Thomas Sowells. We have been lucky indeed to have him with us.
Washington Once Again Shows Us That “Congressional Ethics” Is an Oxymoron
On the very first day of the new Congress, House Republicans met in secret. Their very first order of business was to vote to eliminate the quasi-independent office that investigates House ethics. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) was the architect of the attack on the Office of Congressional Ethics, known as O.C.E. The rules change would have prevented the office from investigating potentially criminal allegations, allowed members of the House Ethics Committee to shut down any O.C.E. investigation, and silenced staff members in their dealings with the news media.
The O.C.E. was created in 2008, after a series of bribery and corruption scandals involving members of both parties. Three House members were sent to jail. Among those joining Rep. Goodlatte in calling for the end of O.C.E. were Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), who had been investigated by the O.C.E. for sexual harassment, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), who was investigated after he and his wife took a $24,000 trip to Taiwan, which appeared to have been improperly paid for by the Taiwanese government, and Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO), who was ranking member of the House Committee on Small Business in 2009 when he invited expert testimony on the renewable fuel industry from a representative of a renewable fuels business in which his wife had a financial stake, a potential conflict of interest. Another advocate of ending O.C.E. was Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM), who last year tried to eliminate the entire O.C.E. budget after it investigated one of his staff members. Or consider Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), another supporter of eliminating O.C.E., who has used campaign funds for personal expenses, which is illegal. Among his reported expenditures: $1,400 for a dentist, $2,000 for a Thanksgiving trip to Italy, and $600 to take his children’s pet bunny on a commercial airplane. (After these expenses were exposed, he reimbursed his campaign $62,000). The list of those supporting the elimination of O.C.E. who have been the targets of investigation is not a short one.
President-elect Donald Trump quickly weighed in, questioning the priorities of Republican members of Congress. Shortly after, lawmakers were summoned to the basement of the Capitol for a meeting with Republican leaders. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the majority leader, asked his fellow Republicans whether they had campaigned to repeal the Affordable Care Act or to eliminate the ethics office? Shortly after this, the idea of eliminating the O.C.E. was scrapped.
This was not the first time that House lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — had tried to curtail the powers or budget of the O.C.E. In 2011, Rep. Melvin Watt (D-NC), who later left Congress to join the Obama administration, tried to cut the agency’s budget by 40 percent, a proposal that failed on a 302-102 vote. The Republican effort, just after the election of Donald Trump, who promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington, was viewed as tone-deaf in the extreme. The vote to eliminate the O.C.E., noted The Economist, “showed those lawmakers to lack self-awareness to an amazing degree.” Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) said:
“Mr. Trump campaigned that he was going to drain the swamp, and here we are on Day One trying to fill the swamp. . . . I just could not believe that the Congress does not understand that, if anything, we need to bring sunshine in.”
Many years ago, Mark Twain pointed out that Congress was our only “native born criminal class.” The evidence in recent years would fill many pages. In 2009, Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) was convicted of corruption charges in a case made famous by the $90,000 in bribe money stuffed into his freezer. Federal jurors found Jefferson guilty of using his congressional office as a criminal enterprise to enrich himself, soliciting and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to support his business ventures in Africa. While the Jefferson case is an extreme example of congressional corruption, his attorney’s defense that, in effect, “everyone does it,” is not as far fetched as it may appear. Other members of Congress may not have $90,000 in their freezers, but too many are guilty of questionable activities.
Just as Jefferson’s trial began, we learned of Sen. John Ensign’s (R-NV) affair with an aide and the subsequent payments to her family by his parents. Also at that time, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was the subject of several ethics investigations over matters ranging from his occupying four apartments at below market rents in a Harlem building owned by a prominent real estate developer, and his admission that he had neglected to pay some taxes by failing to report $75,000 in income in rental income earned from a beachfront villa in the Dominican Republic. The Wall Street Journal commented: “Ever notice that those who endorse high taxes and those who actually pay them aren’t the same people?”
There is, of course, the larger question of the ethical standards of the Congress, beyond activities that are clearly illegal. Members of Congress subsidize, in one form or another, a host of special interests — farmers, businessmen, Wall Street, universities, welfare recipients, labor unions — and each group has a special Political Action Committee (PAC) that contributes to members’ campaigns. Cuts in subsidies to these groups will provoke cuts in contributions. The result: every group gets what it wants, and the budget deficits skyrocket. Added to this business-as-usual subsidization are the bailouts of failed banks, Wall Street firms, and auto companies — turning traditional ideas of free enterprise on their head. This is the “crony capitalism” now embraced by both political parties.
We have created in America a permanent political class that has an interest in ever-expanding government. The party out of power always says government is too big — but once it comes to power, it makes it even bigger. Republicans accuse Democrats of being supporters of “big government,” which is true enough, but government power has also grown dramatically under Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. When will voters finally understand that both of our political parties are co-conspirators in the growth of both government power and our huge deficits? This is something the Founding Fathers sought to prevent — and would have been sorry to see. But they wouldn’t have been surprised.
Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Edward Carrington, observed that:
“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground. . . . One of the profoundest preferences in human nature is for satisfying one’s needs and desires with the least possible exertion; for appropriating wealth produced by the labor of others, rather than producing it by one’s own labor. . . . In other words, the stronger the government, the weaker the producer, the less consideration need be given him and the more might be taken away from him. A deep instinct of human nature being for these reasons in favor of strong government, nothing could be a more natural progress of things than for Liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”
It was because of their fear of governmental power that the Framers of the Constitution limited government through the Bill of Rights and divided its authority through our federal system. By establishing the executive, legislative, and judicial branches — and by dividing authority between the state and national governments — the Framers hoped to ensure that no branch of government would ever obtain so much power that it would be a threat to freedom.
The kind of activist government we have now — involved in every aspect of people’s lives, even running an automobile company — is the opposite of what the Founding Fathers had in mind. From the beginning of history, the great philosophers predicted that democratic government would not long preserve freedom. Plato, Aristotle and, more recently, De Tocqueville, Lord Bryce and Macauley predicted that men would give away their freedom voluntarily for what they perceived as greater security. French political philosopher Bertrand De Jouvenel noted that:
“The state, when once it is made the giver of protection and security, has but to urge the necessities of its protectorate and over-lordship to justify its encroachments.”
Voters say that they are against big government and oppose inflation and deficit spending, but when it comes to their own particular share, they act in a different way entirely. Walter Judd, who represented Minnesota in Congress for many years, once recalled that a Republican businessman from his district:
“. . . who normally decried deficit spending, berated me for voting against a bill which would have brought several million federal dollars into our city. My answer was, ‘Where do you think federal funds for Minneapolis come from? People in St. Paul?’. . . My years in public life have taught me that politicians and citizens alike invariably claim that government spending should be restrained, except where the restraints cut off federal dollars flowing into their cities, or their pocketbooks.”
If each group curbed its demands upon government, it would not be difficult to balance the budget and restore health to the economy. But as long as we allow politicians to solicit virtually unlimited amounts of money from those special interests with business before Congress, this is unlikely — and both parties are in it together. Human nature leads to the unfortunate situation in which, under representative government, people have learned that they can secure funds for themselves that have, in fact, been produced by the hard work of others.
This point was made more than 200 years ago by the British historian Alexander Tytler:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury — with the result that democracy collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by dictatorship.”
The Founding Fathers never envisioned the creation of a permanent political class such as the one we have now. They believed that men would be farmers, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers — and would devote several years of their lives to public service and then go home to their careers. Today, however, we have professional politicians — men and women who support their families by holding public office and intend to do so for many years. When they do leave public office, most do not go home and many remain in Washington as high-priced lobbyists. Their motivation, it seems, is clearly whatever will permit them to do so, not the long-run best interests of the country. Incumbents running for re-election in one-party districts raise millions from special interests that they do not need for their campaigns, and can keep it when they leave Congress.
The incoming Trump administration promises to “drain the swamp.” It will be interesting to see how — and if — this proceeds. Still, we must keep in mind that Members of Congress respond to our demands. As long as we — whether individuals, farmers, Wall Street banks or any other special interest, seek to be subsidized by government, and this is the price they must pay for our support, the politicians of both parties will comply. In this sense, our own selfishness, as well as theirs, is the culprit. The term “congressional ethics” may indeed be an oxymoron. But the ethics of the rest of us may not be far behind. In a sense, then, we have the kind of government we deserve — one that indeed represents our values. A brazen effort to eliminate the independent ethics office by a secret vote of House Republicans shows us how far we have gone down this path. *