On this annual holiday, we typically celebrate the men who gave us life, loved us, raised us, cared for us, instructed us. In that spirit, I wanted to honor the men whose vision, passion and courage gave us our country, and whose timeless wisdom should still be a beacon today.
Much is written about Americans’ freedoms of speech, of association, of religion. But it is unpopular these days to extol the virtues of commerce. Our current President seems to regard businessmen and woman as the only criminals left in a system otherwise populated with the deprived, the discriminated against, or the simply misunderstood. Too few people today see the relationship between liberty, individual responsibility, and prosperity. But our first President, George Washington, understood it: “A people... who are possessed of the spirit of commerce, who see and who will pursue their advantages may achieve almost anything.”
It has always been amazing to me - and never more so than now - how many Americans mistrust business - which consists of people with money - yet repose total confidence in government - which is people with money and guns. No one has ever put a gun to someone’s head and forced them to buy a box of cereal. (Although you’d think they had, given the FDA’s recently announced War on Cheerios; that’s a subject for another column.) But governments have put guns to people's heads for as long as there have been guns. (And before that, they used other methods.) 100 million people died in the 20th century under Communism alone. Other forms of government (monarchy comes to mind) have killed millions more.
It is not that heads of corporations cannot be corrupt. Of course they can be. Or that you cannot find instances of abuse of power in business. Of course you can. But those who point to these abuses fail to draw the larger lessons from them. People who loathe, resent and mistrust business seem to conclude that the species of human ensconced in government is somehow different than that which drives business.
History refutes this illusion over and over again. Human beings, when given power over others, tend to oppress, enslave and/or kill them. The more power they have, the more murderously inclined they are. Why? Because humans tend to assume that they are right, and that everyone should do what they dictate. Most of us cannot act on those assumptions – thank God. Those who can are always in a position threatening to the rest of us.
The drafters of our nation's foundational documents had studied history, and they understood the human tendency to oppress others when given power. (That would be all humans; not just those running multinational corporations.) Alexander Hamilton said, “A fondness for power is implanted, in most men, and it is natural to abuse it, when acquired.” James Madison builds on this understanding, saying, “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” And so our government was set up to be limited, so that we would not be dependent upon the whim, personality or individual ethics of the person - or people - in office. Madison writes in Federalist Paper #58: “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among the several bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.”
The system the Founding Fathers created was one of restrained government and individual liberty. But liberty means the freedom to make mistakes. And it comes with a price - consequences. You smoke? You may get cancer. You sleep around? You’ll get STDs. You gamble? You lose money. You have children out of wedlock? You have a far greater chance of being poor. Freedom without personal responsibility is not liberty, but license, and is democracy’s downfall. John Adams wrote, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Pillaging business and attacking individual prosperity in the name of “protecting the less fortunate” are nothing new. Thomas Paine wrote in 1791, “[W]e still find the greedy hand of government thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry, and grasping the spoil of the multitude. Invention is continually exercised, to furnish new pretenses for revenues and taxation. It watches prosperity as its prey and permits none to escape without tribute.”
There is an obligation to help the less fortunate, including those whose sorrow and circumstances are the product of their own poor decisions. But it is a moral obligation, and cannot be made a legal one without consequences even more dire than leaving them to their fate.
The reason that government cannot protect everyone from the consequences of all their choices, or give people everything they want, is because it is impossible. And the pursuit of the impossible by those powerful enough to attempt it notwithstanding has always been a prescription for widespread misery. Among the most miserable are those who become dependent upon government. Thomas Jefferson understood that these poor souls are easy prey for the power-hungry, writing, “Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.”
The pervasive lie that forcibly taking from the productive will benefit those who are not, not only destroys prosperity, it rewards sloth, irresponsibility, and even criminality. The Founding Fathers understood this. We have thought ourselves their betters, and are reaping the consequences of this deliberate ignorance today.
President Obama wrote a poignant essay for Father’s Day, in which he acknowledged the immeasurable loss of his own father, and bemoaned the time he has spent away from his daughters. He also said, wisely, “I came to understand that the hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to his children is one that no government can fill.” Both Barack and Michelle Obama seem to be adoring, responsible and deeply committed parents – role models for all Americans, but particularly for the African-American community, which has seen its family structure decimated by government handouts. The sponsors and supporters of these programs had the best of intentions, but by separating irresponsible behavior from its consequences, they encouraged it, allowed it to spread, and helped cultivate a culture of irresponsibility, sexual promiscuity, and now multiple generations of fatherless children. Inspiring these children to behave differently from that which they have seen and known will be a monumental challenge. It is not insurmountable. But it is clear at this point that more of the same will not succeed.
As is so often the case with President Obama, his Father’s Day speech sounds wonderful, but the reality of what he proposes is far different. All the social programs in the world cannot substitute for individual responsibility. There is no amount of money that can compensate for its lack. All the prosperous citizens and all the thriving businesses cannot fund it. Any government program ignoring these realities will be doomed to fail, and any tax system set up to support it will be insatiable. It will doom the American system of prosperity with it.
Would that our current President heed the words of our Founding Fathers as he composes his own. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Here comes the orator! With his flood of words, and his drop of reason.”
(With special thanks to marksquotes.com.)