In the first part of this series we discussed the reason there is no real “middle” in contemporary American politics. Essentially, the “middle” is a phony construct generated by partisans of various stripes to pull people towards the Left or towards the Right.
This is due to the fact the basic beliefs of the Left and of the Right are mutually exclusive and incompatible. The Left sees society, or the State, as the overlord that manages the competing needs and wants of our limited resources. The Right sees society merely as the place for individuals to exchange goods and services and otherwise interact with each other and the State with the overarching goal of maximizing individual liberties.
These competing viewpoints explain a lot about how the Left and Right view legislation: the Left uses legislation to resolve resource allocation problems whereas the Right attempts to use it to resolve encroachments on liberty.
For the first half of our country's history, the federal government for the most part kept to its constitutional responsibilities to keep the rights of individuals from being infringed upon. The government was there to make sure that laws were obeyed, contracts honored and the natural rights weren’t abridged - nothing more.
Even early on, there were efforts made to shift left from the right. Madison vetoed a bill for roads and canals, citing no constitutional authority for the federal government to get involved. President Franklin Pierce in his 1854 veto of a bill to help the mentally ill wrote:
I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity. (To approve the measure) would be contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded.
The idea of helping others out appeals to our better natures - we don’t like to see suffering. We want to help people out.
However, having government do it appeals to our baser nature. “We” can help people out with somebody else’s money! So it’s easy to say yes - let’s use the government to help people out, it won't cost us anything.
Our Founding Fathers understood enough about human nature to know that this is not just a bad idea, but that it will eventually destroy our freedom. James Madison said:
With respect to the two words 'general welfare,' I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.
Thomas Jefferson agreed:
A Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.
These wise men knew instinctively if not intellectually that allowing the government to shift from preserving liberty to providing welfare will destroy liberty.
For almost a century, we’ve seen the results of legislative action based on the notions that government needs to do more than safeguard our rights and liberty, that it needs to create rights and provide welfare. These were, in part, expressed in Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech:
Two of these are natural rights - free speech and freedom of worship. These rights were enshrined in our Bill of Rights. These rights exist without the need to infringe on anyone else’s rights to exercise them.
The other two, while well meaning, require that an individual's sovereign rights must be violated. They are positive rights in that the government grants them to individuals but government can only do this aat the expense of other individual's property or efforts.
A favorite example is the Social Security program created by FDR. Social Security was established as a “social safety net” to protect a certain class of individuals from the consequences of poor economic choices or life’s occasional hardships. Roosevelt, firmly on the Left, saw it as the responsibility of the federal government to ensure the “right” of having some money in old age.
The Left clearly considers it the responsibility of the state to take care of the elderly and infirm. This view comes from the false notion that all the products of our labor belong to the State and thus that it's proper for the State to decide who gets to enjoy them.
As defined by FDR, the elderly have a right to a “lack of want,” so we must guarantee that right by providing them with enough money that they won’t be in want. That money comes from the only place government can get money - the citizens. This new “right” - a “lack of want” - now trumps the natural right of individuals to determine what they do with the fruits of their own labor.
It also comes from a well-intended but verifiably false notion that society won’t take care of the elderly and infirm if the government doesn't force the issue. As evidence, the Left uses poor seniors without retirement savings as justification to then provide for them the right to others' money.
The Right sees Social Security for what it truly is: the confiscation of money from individual citizens and redistributing it to others. Of such charity James Madison stated:
Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.
He didn’t say charity wasn’t part of the duty of all citizens - it absolutely is - merely that it was not part of the duty of government.
The Right objects to the redistributionist idea of Social Security not because it objects to helping the poor elderly, but because it objects to government acting in a way that reduces liberty. This reduction in liberty comes from first, depriving the individual of the fruit of their labor, and second, creating dependency on the government in those who receive the labor.
The final installment will discuss why these aren’t just theoretical positions and why we can’t settle in the middle.