Big government, little government, why all the fuss?
Published Wed, Apr 27 2011 2:38 PM
Technorati Tags: Politics, Federalism, States Rights, Founders
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.– That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation upon such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
When the American colonies separated from the British empire, these words formed a part of their justification for doing so. They are a part of the foundation of our nation, whether they hold the force of law or not. They establish that the founders believed:
- All men are created equal.
- Rights come from our creator, not from government.
- Among our rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness – and we have other rights besides these.
- Rights belong to the individual.
- The purpose of government is to secure our rights – not to grant them.
- Government gets its power from the people – not a divine grant
- When a government no longer protects our individual unalienable rights or when it asserts powers not granted to it by the consent of the governed the people have the right to replace it.
All men are created equal. That doesn’t mean that we all have the same abilities. That doesn’t mean that we are all born into the same circumstance. That doesn’t mean that we will all share the same outcomes. But… we are all men, or women, created equal.
Please… let’s get past that one right now. Just because I use “men” when I talk about people does not mean that I’m excluding women, or that I somehow don’t believe that men and women were created equal. I’m not about to go to the convoluted lengths that seem to be required by political correctness to make all words gender-neutral. Nor am I about to start writing using alternating genders in every sentence, paragraph or phrase. That’s just silly and contrived, and it draws attention to gender as an issue when it need not be one. And, since common usage as I was growing up used the masculine gender, not to mention the fact that I’m male – deal with it, I will continue to use the masculine gender in writing, unless I am specifically talking about gender issues. This isn’t sexist despite the whining and ranting of so-called “feminists”. We are all created equal, men and women – other differences aside.
What the assertion that all men are created equal means is that all of us have the same essential unalienable individual rights, as well as the same essential responsibilities. Our rights don’t derive from our station in life – a homeless person on the street has the same unalienable rights as the President of the United States for example. Neither do our rights derive from who our parents were. A child born to a whore has the same unalienable rights as the child of a wealthy business man or the children of a politician. It’s plain to see that the outcomes for people are not the same – some people are blessed with fortune while others are not – but the individual rights of the people and the responsibilities that go with those rights are the same.
Rights come from our creator, not from government. This is what the founders believed. I believe it too, but there are some that think that this is an outdated notion based in religion. Fortunately, it is not necessary to argue the existence of a creator to establish that our unalienable rights come from our very being and existence and not from government. John Locke did an excellent job of establishing the principles of natural law and our indefeasible rights as individuals without requiring an appeal to God, even though it was plain in his writing that he believed in God. Begin with the right to Life. Plainly it is ours by virtue of the fact that we are alive.
Men have unalienable rights as a consequence of their existence. These rights are not given to us by any government. Government as we know it (setting aside the divine government of the universe by God, not to belittle it, but because I am not looking for a religious argument to support what I’m saying) is an institution of men and cannot have existed without the existence of men. Men had the right to Life and Liberty before government existed. If these rights are the grant of government and not intrinsic to our very being then they did not exist before government. If as some would assert our natural rights are granted to us by government then government first had to usurp them from us in order to make that grant. The notion is absurd.
Among our rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness – and we have other rights besides these. John Locke asserted a right to property was among our natural rights. There are yet others. Think about these rights for a moment. What do they all have in common?
First, these rights are individual rights. Each of us has these rights as an individual. The individual has the right to Life. The individual has the right to Liberty. The individual has the right to pursue Happiness. The individual has a right to the property he has created or acquired.
Second, these rights are about what we can do or have for ourselves – not what we can take or demand from another. I have a right to live – I do not have a right to take your life. I have a right to be free, to choose what I will do – I do not have a right to dictate to you how you shall live or what you may do. I have a right to the fruit of my own labors – I do not have a right to take that which you have labored upon from you.
Rights belong to the individual. This is the essential character of our natural, unalienable, indefeasible rights: They are individual and make no demands upon others. Yes, it can be argued that the Declaration of Independence that I quoted does not explicitly declare that rights belong to the individual, but the conclusion seems obvious to me. I have the same rights whether I am a member of a society or not. Yes, these rights belong to all men – but they are not “collective” rights. They are not the rights of a society, they are individual. Each of us has them equally.
There is a notion today of “class” rights. It’s worth examining – but class rights are not natural, nor are they unalienable. They don’t share the characteristic of our individual natural rights in that they do make demands upon others. Much is made of the rights of society, the rights of women, the rights of children, and even the rights of certain races. To me this is a fundamentally flawed view of rights.
First of all, to assert rights that belong to a class of people rather than individuals is to say that all men are not created equal. By virtue of being a member of a particular class of people one may have superior rights over another. If you want to assert that a class has rights that another class does not that’s fine – but if you do, don’t try to tell me that you believe we are all created equal. You are asserting that you believe otherwise. You can’t have it both ways.
The purpose of government is to secure our rights – not to grant them. If our rights belong to us as individuals, if they are intrinsic in our very being how can it be otherwise? If the purpose of government was to grant us our rights there would be no need for government if those rights are intrinsic in our very nature. And yet it’s obvious that government cannot be the source of our right to Life – we lived before there was government. It is also obvious that government cannot be the source of our right to Liberty – government constrains our liberties in order to protect the liberty of each of us from those that would usurp it. Government cannot be the source of our right to pursue Happiness – again, government constrains us to behave in certain ways.
A man doesn’t enter into society with the goal of surrendering his rights. Rather, we join a society for mutual gain. None of us can individually create all of the things that we need for a comfortable existence. Instead we agree with others to arrange for the things that we want – in a pact that must be of mutual benefit. If there is no mutual benefit then why would the one seeing no gain enter into the pact? As the number of people entering into the arrangement grows the benefit grows as well. Comfort and luxury can be powerful temptations to one living in privation and squalor.
We’re all familiar with bullies. In fact, there are some that would insulate us all from the concept while harping on it. Plainly put a bully is someone that will use the threat of force to get what he wants. This sort of person will ignore the rights of others for his own gain. Our societies are formed in part to protect the rights of the weak among us from bullying. It is this sort of arrangement from which government derives – we sacrifice some measure of our autonomy to ensure that our rights are secure from predation – whether the predator is a part of our society or outside it. We move from the state of nature to a society that can assure us ordered liberty.
Government gets its power from the people – not a divine grant. For those that don’t accept the notion of a divine power this should be a no-brainer. For those that do, it’s a bit more complicated. We believe for example that there is no secular institution that does not exist without His license. The institution may exist that is run by men with motives that run counter to His purpose, but without His allowing it to exist it would not. Further, we are constrained by His command to obey the Earthly authorities that He has put over us. So what could the founders, religious men for the most part (yes, there were some of rather questionable moral character), have meant by the statement “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”? Obviously they questioned the “divine right of kings”.
We can find out more by looking to Locke again. Or we can work it out ourselves. Put simply, the divine right of kings is a fiction. No man alive can trace his lineage back far enough to demonstrate that he has by right of inheritance a divine grant on power or authority. Nor can any nation in existence today.
If we accept that governments are “instituted among men” to secure our rights then surely they are not divine creations. After all, men are certainly not divine. If societies are formed for the mutual benefit of their members why would those members enter into the pact without agreeing upon the powers that the society should have? As an institution of men, the institutions “just” power comes from those men that instituted the government. Any power that the people do not agree to – that the “rulers” take upon themselves without the consent of the people is “unjust”.
When a government no longer protects our individual unalienable rights or when it asserts powers not granted to it by the consent of the governed the people have the right to replace it. This was the case with the British empire’s governance of the colonies. The Continental Congress enumerated a long list of grievances against King George and his government. Why? Because it was trampling upon their rights – both the rights of the individual and the rights of the colonies as sovereign entities.
I am not advocating revolution. The Declaration of Independence has more to say on the topic of governance than simply that the people have a right to choose the government that suits them.
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
I don’t think we’re quite at the point where it’s necessary to throw out the good with the bad. But what of the topic of this post implied by the title? Where does the debate between big government and small government fit in?
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”
By declaring independence, the Continental Congress established thirteen individual nations united by the common cause of Liberty. They didn’t establish a new nation. They established thirteen of them. Of course it took war – a war that was already in progress – to establish once and for all that these were indeed “Free and Independent States”. It took war to force the British empire to quit it’s claim over the colonies and to recognize them as independent nations. At the time of the Declaration – based on the wording of the Declaration – this is the meaning that the founders had in mind. The thirteen colonies were not part of a single nation – they were thirteen separate nations.
Just as men give up the state of nature to form societies so too did the states. Individually these nations were no match for the British empire – or any other European nation for that matter. They were united in a common cause – throwing off the shackles of Britain – but otherwise they were not a single nation. During the revolution they formed into a loose confederacy – a union of states. The purpose of this confederacy was for mutual friendship and protection, not government…
“Article II. Each State retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation, expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.
Article III. The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defence, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding them-selves to assist each other against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence whatever.”
Clearly, in the Articles of Confederation the states gave up very little of their sovereignty over their citizens. A thorough reading of the Articles of Confederation demonstrates that they were not ceding the governance of their citizens to any “higher” national authority. Citizens of one state were subject to the laws of that state, and if found as fugitives in another were required to be surrendered up to the state they were fugitive from. Each state was required to accept the acts of the other states in regard to their internal affairs in much the same way that nations of the Earth today must honor the acts of other nations regarding their internal affairs. Governance of the people – and all that it entails was the purview of the states, not of the confederacy.
The establishment of the Constitution and the federal government did not change this. Show me where it did. You won’t find it in Article I, which establishes the existence and structure of Congress and lays out its powers and duties. You won’t find it in Article II, which establishes the Presidency and lays out its powers and duties. You won’t fined it in Article III, which establishes the Judiciary – and in fact says nothing whatsoever about controversy between the citizens of a state and that state – other than that trials shall be by jury and that trials must take place within the state where the crime being tried is alleged to have been committed. You won’t find it in Article IV – which merely guarantees the privileges and immunities of the citizens of the states and the rights of the states. You won’t find it in Article V which prescribes the procedure for allowing changes to the Constitution and guarantees each STATE equal representation in the Senate. Nor will you find it in Article VI which establishes the U.S. Constitution, the laws made in pursuance of the constitution (in other words, to give effect to the constitution) and treaties made by the federal government to be the supreme law of the land – and which specifies that all officers, legislators, executives and judges both in the federal government and the state governments must be bound by oath or affirmation to support the Constitution. And you won’t find it in Article VII which established the ratification procedure for the Constitution and cleaned up a few technical details such as textual anomalies.
The founders were so certain that governance of the people belonged with the states that they included the ninth and tenth amendments. When Barack Obama famously declared that the Constitution was a charter of negative liberties – saying what the government could not do regarding the governance of the people, he was absolutely correct. The Constitution defines the limits of the power of the federal government, and it makes it clear that governance of the people belongs to the States.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
When proponents of “states rights” speak, it is this history – which can easily be gleaned from the plain and simple wording of the Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Confederation, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – that they base their argument upon. It’s just that simple. The federal government was always intended to govern and protect the States. If you examine carefully each power granted to the federal government you will see that they are all involved with the interaction of the states with one another, between the states and foreign powers, or between the states and the citizens of other states. This is true of EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM.
We’ve come a long way from that notion – so far that some people have questioned why we even have states today. Ultimately our massive federal budget and the tremendous federal deficit derive from a government run amok. If the federal government were to trim back to those duties and powers that it was intended to perform – and leave the rest to the states as the founders intended – we wouldn’t be in the position of borrowing $1,600,000,000,000.00 from the future every year from now until Barack knows when. We’d be a hell of a lot freer too.
Proponents of “big” government believe that it’s necessary for a vast centralized bureaucracy to run every aspect of our lives – and that that bureaucracy belongs at the federal level. They would take away our individual rights and trample upon the rights and sovereignty of the states – as they already have. Big government gains its power by granting entitlements and “class” rights – a power that is none of it’s purpose and suppresses our unalienable rights. To achieve its aims it must redefine our basic rights and trample them down. The plain meaning of words must be twisted or ignored.
It’s time the states asserted their rights again. It’s time the people took up their responsibility and demanded that their rightful governors – the states – did so as well.
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Angel responded with:
Bravo Perri!! The purpose of government is to secure our rights – not to grant them...ah yes but the tyrant in chief is busy raising money for his campaign already...billions!
David responded with:
It would be a Very Good Thing if enough of The People understood these self-evident concepts that The People would then bring enough pressure to bear on our various governments to weed out the predators within those governments.
One small expansion, although you covered it in principle, "Any power that the people do not agree to – that the 'rulers' take upon themselves without the consent of the people is 'unjust'."
ANY power that any government takes upon itself for any reason that abrogates ANY "unalienable right" of any of its citizens is unjust. Period.
theMachiavellian responded with:
Great post. It is too bad most Americans don't speak in these terms any more. But then again, one has to be taught in these terms.
Today, government promises people group rights. Minority rights, female rights, gay rights, handicap rights.....
I'd just like to remind those people that that Turkey also granted Armenians group rights. Nazi Germany issued Jews group rights and Stalin's USSR also recognized the group rights of the Ukranians.
Group rights assume that said rights emanate from Government and nothing could be more dangerous.
Individual rights, imbued into the individual by the Creator is genius of a free society.
No government dares or is capable of taking away rights granted by God.
Yet, it seems many are willing to cede those rights without a fight. Yet, is it possible to cede what God has given?
Always On Watch responded with:
I am greatly saddened that so many Americans today don't seem to care what our Constitution says -- both explicitly and implicitly.
Sadly, Americans have lost sight of the fact that the principles of federalism are what have made America great and, as pointed out so well in this post, have protected our individual freedoms.
Now, Americans are willing to surrender their individual freedoms to The Nanny State.
I fear that the future of America is quite dim now.
Diane responded with:
States rights eh? Well I AM from the South. LOL