Archive for the ‘Category – Virtue and Morality’ Category

First Principles

Posted: January 4, 2012 in First Principles

The First Principles of the Constitution.

This is a great article about the first principles which go to make up our present Constitution. A vast majority of the paper is devoted to the importance of  Civic virtue. Great reading.

“To our Founding Fathers it was obvious, or “self-evident,” that self-government, or a democratic republic, could only be perpetuated by the self-governed. Reflecting these precepts, a contemporary German writer to the Founders, J. W. von Goethe, stated: “What is the best government? — That which teaches us to govern ourselves.”22 And, a later, prominent 19th Century minister, Henry Ward Beecher, simply said: “There is no liberty to men who know not how to govern themselves.”23 Self-governance consists of self-regulation of our behavior, ambitions and passions. To this end, the Founders fundamentally believed that the ability to govern ourselves rests with our individual and collective virtue (or character).”

PDF: First Principles of the Constitution


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September 15, 2007

The Judeo-Christian Values of America

By Ronald R. Cherry

Judeo-Christian Values have a foundational role in America, beginning with the Declaration of Independence:
“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…”
Since the pursuit of happiness, as Sigmund Freud surmised, is tied to human love and to creative work and play, the principles of American Judeo-Christian Values can rightly be summarized as the honoring of God-given Life, Liberty and Creativity. This seed of American Social Justice was then fleshed out in the U.S. Constitution through reason and common sense, unencumbered by the dysfunctional religious and secular traditions and laws of Old Europe.
Our Founding Fathers separated church from state, but they wisely did not separate God from state; they acknowledged God as the source of our rights, and, in fact, they were careful to place Biblical morality directly into our founding documents and laws, and into our values and culture precisely to help prevent a future of totalitarian or tyrannical rule in America.  The combination of keeping Judeo-Christian religious morality in the state, as opposed to the church it’s self; and, additionally, setting up our laws based on reason and common sense has contributed to the American Character, and to what is known as “American Exceptionalism.”
Our Founding Fathers were religious in a new way, the Judeo-Christian way, and they were the liberals of their day by deducing that our political and human rights come from a power higher than human government; but they were conservative to Biblical morality.  There was and still is a connection between God and Liberty; He is the author of it.  It is ironic that American Conservatives are now the champion of this our most liberal founding principle; and also an irony that most American Conservatives are wholly unaware of their connection with the liberal founding ideas of this great republic.  It is also an irony that many American Liberals have turned a blind eye to the required connection between God and Liberty.  As Thomas Jefferson and John Adams noted, as you will see below, Liberty cannot survive among men without its Divine connection.
In Judeo-Christian America one finds the idea of equality before God and the law, but not government forced economic equality.   Modern European culture has stressed the value of economic equality rather than Liberty, and their governments unjustly enforce the principle.  This has led to the failed European inventions of Socialism and Communism.  Socialists in America have been lured into this failed European idea of social justice.  Socialism is a failure in that it unjustly suppresses human creativity by excessively taxing away its rewards, and by foolishly giving economic reward to many who, even though mentally and physically able, fail to honor their Divine privilege and duty to work creatively.
Thus, Socialism is a dual insult to God-given creativity.  Communism was much worse in that it also dishonored the sacredness of human life and liberty.  Communism was the inevitable result of separating not just church from state, but God from state.  Communism dishonored God’s gifts of Life, Liberty and Creativity.  European cultures have historical ties to authoritarian and totalitarian systems dating back to the Roman Empire.  Even European Christianity was, for a time, contaminated by its links to authoritarian rule.
American Judeo-Christian Culture, on the other hand, has been linked to honoring Life, Liberty and Creativity from the outset; deriving its wisdom from the lights of reason, common sense, and both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament Christian Bible.  Thomas Jefferson and the great majority of our Founding Fathers explicitly put God into the national life of the United States, by putting the Creator into the Declaration of Independence.  It is important that American Liberty has something to do with God; that is something for students to know and discuss, even if they are not particularly religious.  This does not represent some form of tyranny of the religious majority or an injustice; it was in fact the wisdom of our Founding Fathers to stand in opposition to tyranny and injustice by acknowledging the source of our rights — those rights originating from God rather than from King George III, or for that matter from the Soviet or Chinese Politburo, or a courthouse, or a legislature.
America is a melting pot of diverse people including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Atheists; and from the Judeo-Christian perspective, all are made in God’s image.  We have in America a multiethnic society, and that is good.  What would be unhealthy for America would be for it to become Balkanized, something likely to happen with the atrophy of Judeo-Christian American Culture and Values.  Worse yet would be for America to adopt the toxic values which exist in some parts of the world and which are endemic in some foreign cultures.  The values of Fascism, Nazism, Communism or Totalitarian Islamic Sharia Law for example must never metastasize into our American Culture, rooted in Judeo-Christian values.  These values have been with us from the beginning and they have made us strong and successful.  These Judeo- Christian Values should be kept central to the American Spirit and Culture even as we have become more multi-ethnic.
Some of the words of our Founding Fathers will illustrate American Judeo-Christian Values and our separation of church and state, but not the separation of God from state, and provide grounding for our understanding of social justice.

Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them 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 ….”
He also wrote:
“God who gave us life gave us liberty.  Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”  He also wrote:  “Almighty God hath created the mind free.  … All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens…are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion…”
He also wrote:
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Our Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
President George Washington said this when proclaiming our National Thanksgiving Holiday:
“It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God ….”
John Adams wrote this:
“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 for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Later, Abraham Lincoln wrote these words about the Bible:
“In regard to this great book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to men.  All the good Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book.  But for it we could not know right from wrong.”
He also spoke these words at the Gettysburg Address:
“…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The following are the Judeo-Christian Values embraced by the American Republic and People.
I am indebted to Dennis Prager who has listed Judeo-Christian Values and elaborated on this subject long before I took it up; and those who know his work will recognize many of his thoughts.
1.  Our sense of right and wrong and our sense of wisdom come from the use of reason and common sense, but also, and importantly, from the Bible which, by faith was considered by our Founding Fathers to be God’s inspired text; and not just from the mind or heart of man.  This faith lead to the mottos: “In God We Trust” and “One Nation under God.”  Our Founding Fathers were believers in the God of the Bible, even if some were not orthodox Christians, and they put that faith into the Declaration of Independence, into our laws, into our national monuments, and into our culture.  Faith is a part of American Culture, something Atheists, Secularists, Humanists and those of other religions should acknowledge and accept as historically accurate truth.  To remove the results of Biblical Faith from America is to undo what the Founding Fathers have wrought.
2.  Truth is Sacred; there can be no liberty or justice, and little happiness without it.  Jesus connected truth and liberty when he said “the truth shall make you free.”  In the Book of Exodus of the Hebrew Bible God describes Himself:  “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth…”   In Deuteronomy God is described this way:  “He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, A God of truth and without injustice.”  Listen to King David in Psalm 25:  “Show me Your ways, O Lord; Teach me your paths.  Lead me in Your truth…”;  and in Psalm 51:  “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.”
3.  Human life is the first gift of God, and it is of infinite value since man is made in the image of God.  Judeo-Christian Values have lead to a culture of life in America, not a culture of death.  Americans with Judeo-Christian Values will defend innocent God-given life.
4.  Our Liberty is a gift from God and stated so in the Declaration of Independence.  It is also stated in the New Testament Christian Bible:  “Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty.”  Americans with Judeo-Christian Values will defend their God-given Liberty from tyranny and terror.
5.  Human creativity is also a gift from God and is not to be unjustly suppressed by totalitarian, tyrannical or excessively taxing government.  The work ethic is an important part of Judeo-Christian Values since honorable work is a reflection of God-given human creativity.  Human reason is also a part of God-given human creativity, and it has led to scientific knowledge and technological progress.  Reason and science are important aspects of Judeo-Christian Values.  Human creativity is central to the pursuit of happiness, but does not guarantee it; totalitarian systems such as Communism or Islamic Sharia Law guarantee utopian happiness, but don’t deliver it.
6.  “Establish justice.”  This is commanded repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible.  This is how it has been done in America:  Honor Life, Liberty and Creativity.  Liberty in practical terms means: Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, no established or state-supported religion, right to bear arms and act in self-defense, uninterrupted elections and the division of powers into its three branches.  Where our culture is now headed in the wrong direction, in my opinion, is to provide special rights for certain groups of people.  Our Founding Fathers acknowledged these basic rights for all people, and our Civil War enforced it for the American slaves when they were denied their God-given Liberty.
7.  “Hate Evil”.  This is commanded three times in the Hebrew Bible; this is from the book of Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.”  Hear the Prophet Isaiah: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness….”  Americans with Judeo-Christian Values, as opposed to Europeans, still believe in the death penalty for pre-meditated murder, and America is still the nemesis of terrorists and tyrants – see the seal of the state of Virginia.
8.  “Love your neighbor” – commanded in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.  “Love your enemy” – commanded in the New Testament Christian Bible.  Generations of Americans, starting with our Founding Fathers, have had to square the values of “Hate Evil” with “Love your enemy.”  This has been done by hating the evil within the enemies of God-given Life and Liberty, but not hating the evil-doer him/herself.
9.  In the Judeo-Christian Value System there is a natural and common-sense balance between compassion and courageous confrontation of evil.  This can be seen metaphorically as a natural balance between femininity and masculinity; both good and necessary.  The secular culture of Europe and of many in the United States today have unwisely suppressed the masculinity of Judeo-Christian American Culture, and this has put our society out of balance.
10. From Many, One:  e pluribus unum. Ethnicity and race don’t matter, but values do matter.  We Americans should consider ourselves blessed to live under God-given Liberty in the same melting pot; and we are privileged to pursue happiness through creative work and play, unencumbered by excessive government.  Those things that divide us, such as race or ethnicity, can be viewed metaphorically as our various styles; and are not very important.  Those things of lesser importance should melt into what is very important and which should unite us: our value of Life, Liberty and Creativity – those rights defined by the Declaration of Independence, and rightly identified as the gifts of God.
11. The natural resources of the Earth, including the animals, along with the rest of creation should be honored and well cared for, but also used and enjoyed; and never worshiped.
Ronald R. Cherry is a medical doctor.

Page Printed from: at May 15, 2010 – 07:14:21 PM CDT

Liberty and Virtue: Invaluable and Inseparable

Doug Bandow

There is no quicker means of raising a skeptical eye among some in politics than to endorse both liberty and virtue. Many people who consider freedom the preeminent political objective perceive support for virtue to be an implicit call for Taliban rule. Some advocates of virtue treat a vigorous defense of liberty like the promotion of vice.

This mutual hostility is evidenced by the growing strains between many social and economic conservatives. Yet neither liberty nor virtue is likely to survive alone.

Both freedom and virtue are under serious assault today. The role of government has been expanding exponentially, highlighted by passage of the federal takeover of the medical system. Virtue, too, seems to be losing ground daily. Evidence of moral decline is evident throughout American society.

At this critical time it would be a mistake to assume that one principle must be sacrificed for the other. Rather, freedom and morality are complementary. That is, liberty—the right to exercise choice, free from coercive state regulation—is a necessary precondition for virtue. And virtue is ultimately necessary for the survival of liberty. Anyone interested in building a good society should desire to live in a community that cherishes both values.

“Virtue cannot exist without freedom, without the right to make moral choices”

Virtue cannot exist without freedom, without the right to make moral choices. Coerced acts of conformity with some moral norm, however good, do not represent virtue; rather, the compliance with that moral norm must be voluntary.

There are times, of course, when coercion is absolutely necessary—most importantly, to enforce an inter-personal moral code governing the relations of one to another. Prohibiting crimes such as murder are obvious examples. In these cases law is necessary not to promote virtue, which depends on voluntary compliance based on internal conscience, but to protect others.

Very different, however, are attempts to mandate virtue, which reflects a standard of intra-personal morality. As such, it is an area that lies largely beyond the reach of state power. Which makes the role of non-governmental institutions, particularly the family and church, so much more important.

“The statist temptation nevertheless remains strong, and for obvious reasons. It takes a real commitment to principle to resist using government for one’s own end.”

The statist temptation nevertheless remains strong, and for obvious reasons. It takes a real commitment to principle to resist using government for one’s own end.

Unfortunately, however, the state has proved that it is not a good teacher of virtue. Government tends to be effective at simple, blunt tasks, like killing and jailing people. It has been far less successful at the far more delicate task of reshaping individual characters. In fact, the sort of blunt social engineering that has characterized the liberal project for most of the 20th century has been far more likely to destroy individual liberty, conscience, and life.

Attempting to forcibly make people virtuous would make society itself less virtuous in three important ways. First, individuals would lose the opportunity to exercise virtue. In this dilemma we see the paradox of Christianity: a God of love creates man and provides a means for his redemption, but allows him to choose to do evil.

Second, to vest government with primary responsibility for promoting virtue shortchanges other institutions, like the family and church, sapping their vitality. Private social institutions find it easier to lean on the power of coercion than to lead by example, persuade, and solve problems. This phenomenon helps explain the expansion of the welfare state, as government has increasingly taken over the role of offering charity, providing health care, and meeting other human needs. Yet we are called to serve, to “suffer with,” as compassion once meant, not to turn our responsibilities to our neighbors over to the state.

Third, making government a moral enforcer encourages abuse by those who gain power. The effect of sin is magnified by the exercise of coercive power. As Lord Acton famously observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Its possessors can, of course, do good, but history demonstrates that they are far more likely to do harm, even if they start with the best of intentions. And centuries of experience demonstrate that many of those who wield political power have less positive ends in mind. They do so even in the U.S., despite the inevitable claim by politicians that they are speaking for the people.

“Moreover, as America’s traditional Judeo-Christian consensus crumbles we are more likely to see government actively attacking traditional understandings of virtue”

Moreover, as America’s traditional Judeo-Christian consensus crumbles we are more likely to see government actively attacking traditional understandings of virtue. Indeed, the state already increasingly promotes alternative moral views in public schools. The government seems increasingly likely to end up enshrining notions of virtue very different from those traditionally held by most people. All told, an unfree society is not likely to be a virtuous one.

The fact that government can do little to help does not mean that there is nothing it should do. Public officials should adopt as their maxim “first, do no harm.” Simply protecting liberty by reducing state interference with private moral education would be one effective way to encourage the spread of virtue. Freeing students from failing government schools would be another step.

But freedom is not enough. While liberty is the highest political goal, it is not life’s highest objective. For a Christian, for instance, the greatest commandments are to love God and one’s neighbors. Helping people get in a right relationship with God is more important than reordering the political system.

Nevertheless, building a better society that protects justice and meets material needs is a worthy goal, and one most likely to be achieved through a free society. While a liberal, in the classical sense, economic and political system is the best one available, it will operate most effectively if nestled within a virtuous social environment.

A moral framework allows markets to operate far more smoothly. The virtues also reduce the perceived need for government. People who are honest, work hard, treat others with dignity, help the disadvantaged, and respect the rights of others require less outside regulation. A society made up of such individuals who do not victimize others and themselves invite fewer state restrictions on individual liberty.

Forming a moral social environment requires sustained effort. Although government is a poor means of molding character, collective action is required. In some cases the market process itself will encourage virtuous behavior—rewarding those who serve others, for instance. But for the most part moral education must come from outside the market.

Indeed, it should be understood that markets are merely one institution in a complex free society. Beyond commercial organizations are families, churches, seminaries, communities, clubs, and the manifold other forms of social interaction which so enrich our lives. It is the responsibility of all of us to create and support these institutions, which undergird our free society. Boycotts and shame are two powerful tools to strengthen social moral codes.

The left long has attempted to use state power to remake the individual and society. That experiment filled the 20thcentury with misery and death. This should come as no surprise. We will most flourish in societies which are both free and virtuous. Sacrifice either one, and the effort will almost certainly fail in its goal of making us into a better people.

Liberty and virtue are both under siege in today’s society. Neither value may survive without the other. We must defend both liberty and morality.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of several books, including Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics (Crossway) and The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction).

The Rise of Government and the Decline of Morality

James A. Dorn
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A Classic Essay Updated – Preface To The 2010 Edition

dorn.jpgThe first version of this essay was presented as a lecture by the author at the historic Chautauqua Institution in 1995. The essay originally appeared in The Freeman (March 1996) and was reprinted with minor revisions as Cato’s Letter #12 (1996). That version is still available on the Internet here. In the intervening years the federal government has continued to grow in size and scope. Today Congress annually spends nearly $4 trillion, the federal share of GDP has risen to 25 percent, and the U.S. debt exceeds $12 trillion. Washington has bailed out financial firms, insurance firms, and automobile firms, and has taken over the mortgage and student loan markets. We are now more dependent on government for our health care, pensions, and future than ever before.

The recent financial crisis has expanded the power of government to an alarming degree. Tea parties have revealed the disillusion of millions of Americas with the rise of government and the decline of morality. The crisis has damaged, unfairly, the vision of market liberalism. It is essential, therefore, to reexamine and articulate the principles of a free society and to understand the danger to liberty that the new progressivism poses.

Using other people’s money and promising free lunches are the two things politicians thrive on. It is important that the American people not be duped by that rhetoric. I hope this revised essay will help shine new light on the fundamental principles that made America great.

Government and Morality

The growth of government has politicized life and weakened the nation’s moral fabric. Government intervention—in the economy, the community, and society—has increased the payoff from political action and reduced the scope of private action. People have become more dependent on the state and have unwittingly sacrificed freedom for a false sense of security.

One cannot blame government for all of society’s ills, but there is no doubt that economic and social legislation, especially since the mid-1960s, has had a negative impact on individual responsibility. Individuals lose their moral bearing when they become dependent on government. Subsidies, bailouts, and other aspects of the “nanny state” socialize risk and reduce individual accountability. The internal moral compass that normally guides individual behavior will no longer function when the state undermines incentives for moral conduct and blurs the distinction between right and wrong.

More government spending is not the answer to our social, economic, or cultural problems. The task is not to reinvent government or to give politics meaning; the task is to limit government and revitalize civil society. Government meddling will only make matters worse.

If we want to help the disadvantaged, we do not do so by making poverty pay, restricting markets, prohibiting school choice, discouraging thrift, and sending the message that the principal function of government is to take care of us. We do so by eliminating social engineering and welfare, cultivating free markets, and returning to our moral heritage.

Early 20th Century Virtue: Lessons from the Immigrants

At the beginning of the 20th century there was no welfare state. Family and social bonds were strong, and civil society flourished in numerous fraternal and religious organizations. Total government spending was less than 10 percent of GNP, and the federal government’s powers were narrowly limited.

Immigrants were faced with material poverty, true, but they were not wretched. There was a certain moral order in everyday life, which began in the home and spread to the outside community. Baltimore’s Polish immigrants provide a good example. Like other immigrants, they arrived with virtually nothing except the desire to work hard and to live in a free country. Their ethos of liberty and responsibility is evident in a 1907 housing report describing the Polish community in Fells Point:

A remembered Saturday evening inspection of five apartments in a house [on] Thames Street, with their whitened floors and shining cook stoves, with the dishes gleaming on the neatly ordered shelves, the piles of clean clothing laid out for Sunday, and the general atmosphere of preparation for the Sabbath, suggested standards that would not have disgraced a Puritan housekeeper.

Yet, according to the report, a typical Polish home consisted “of a crowded one- or two-room apartment, occupied by six or eight people, and located two floors above the common water supply.”

Even though wages were low, Polish Americans sacrificed to save and pooled their resources to help each other by founding building and loan associations, as Linda Shopes noted in The Baltimore Book. By 1929, 60 percent of Polish families were homeowners—without any government assistance.

Today, after spending billions of dollars on anti-poverty programs since the mid-1960s, Baltimore and other American cities are struggling for survival. Self-reliance has given way to dependence and a loss of respect for persons and property.

The inner-city landscape is cluttered with crime-infested public housing and public schools that are mostly dreadful, dangerous, and amoral—where one learns more about survival than virtue. And the way to survive is not to take responsibility for one’s own life and family, but to vote for politicians who have the power to keep the welfare checks rolling.

Dysfunctional behavior now seems almost normal as people are shot daily and the vast majority of inner-city births are to unwed mothers on welfare. In addition to the moral decay, high tax rates and regulatory overkill have driven businesses and taxpayers out of the city and slowed economic development. It’s not a pretty picture.

In sum, the growth of government and the rise of the “transfer society” have undermined the work ethic and substituted an ethos of dependence for an ethos of liberty and responsibility. Virtue and civil society have suffered in the process, as has economic progress.

The Role of Government: Conflicting Visions

Market-Liberal Vision

The Founding Fathers recognized that the nature of government is force, and they sought to limit the use of that force to the protection of life, liberty, and property. Markets, both formal and informal, could then be relied on to bring about economic prosperity and social harmony.

In a free society, the relationship between the individual and the state is simple. Thomas Jefferson stated it well: “Man is not made for the State but the State for man, and it derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.” The fact that the Founders never fully realized their principles should not divert attention from the importance of those principles for a free society and for safeguarding the dignity of all people.

Behind the U.S. Constitution lies the tradition of natural rights: Individuals have certain inalienable rights, the most fundamental of which is the right to be left alone, to be free, with the corresponding obligation to respect the freedom and property of others. Under the higher law of the Constitution, justice requires equal protection of persons and property. As James Madison, the chief architect of the Constitution, wrote, “that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”

From a classical-liberal perspective, the primary functions of government are to secure “the blessings of liberty” and “establish justice”—not by mandating outcomes, but by setting minimum standards of just conduct and leaving individuals free to pursue their own values within the law. The “sum of good government,” wrote Jefferson, is to “restrain men from injuring one another,” to “leave them . . . free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement,” and to “not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

The Jeffersonian philosophy of good government was widely shared in 19th-century America. Indeed, Jeffersonian democracy became embodied in what John O’Sullivan, editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, called the “voluntary principle” or the “principle of freedom.” In 1837, he wrote,

The best government is that which governs least . . . [Government] should be confined to the administration of justice, for the protection of the natural equal rights of the citizen, and the preservation of the social order. In all other respects, the voluntary principle, the principle of freedom . . . affords the true golden rule.

During the 19th century, most Americans took it for granted that the federal government has no constitutional authority to engage in public charity (i.e., to legislate forced transfers to help some individuals at the expense of others). It was generally understood that the powers of the federal government are delegated, enumerated, and therefore limited, and that there is no explicit authority for the welfare state. In 1794, Madison expressed the commonly held view of the welfare state: “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which grant[s] a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” From a classical-liberal or market-liberal perspective, then, the role of government is not to “do good at the taxpayers’ expense,” but “to prevent harm.”

The general welfare clause (art. 1, sec. 8) of the U.S. Constitution cannot be used to justify the welfare state. That clause simply states that the federal government, in exercising its enumerated powers, should exercise them to “promote the general welfare,” not to promote particular interests. The clause was never meant to be an open invitation to expand government far beyond its primary role of night watchman.

“With respect to the words ‘general welfare’,” wrote Madison, “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.”

Yet, what Madison feared happened: “Progressives” who sought to use government to do good (with other people’s money) overtook the Madisonian vision of limited government. “Public charity” gradually became the norm. Unlike private charity, however, government transfers always involve coercion or the threat of force. Doing good with other people’s money is not a virtue but a vice.

Modern Liberal Vision

The transformation of the Framers’ constitutional vision began with the Progressive Era, accelerated with the New Deal, and mushroomed with the Great Society’s War on Poverty, which created new entitlements and enshrined welfare rights. Today, more than half the federal budget is spent on entitlements—the largest being Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The newly passed health care legislation will add fuel to the fire of the welfare state. To pay for the $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities in Social Security and Medicare means exorbitant tax increases that will place a heavy burden on future generations.

During the transition from limited government to the welfare state, freedom has come to mean freedom from responsibility. Such freedom, however, is not true freedom but a form of tyranny, which creates moral and social chaos.

The modern liberal’s vision of government is based on a twisted understanding of rights and justice—an understanding that clashes with the principle of freedom inherent in the higher law of the Constitution. Welfare “rights” or entitlements are “imperfect rights” or pseudo-rights; they can be exercised only by violating what legal scholars call the “perfect right” to private property. “Rights” to welfare—whether to food stamps, public housing, health care, or business subsidies—create a legal obligation to help others. In contrast, the right to property, understood in the Lockean sense, merely obligates individuals to refrain from taking what is not theirs. For the modern liberal, justice refers to “social (or distributive) justice”—an amorphous term, subject to all sorts of abuse if made the goal of public policy, as F. A. Hayek has aptly noted in The Constitution of Liberty and other writings. As a norm for action, the concept of “social justice” leads to uncertainty and competition for government favors. The result is bigger government and corruption. The cost of the pursuit of social justice is the loss of freedom. Instead of creating certainty by limiting the range of government actions under a just rule of law, the modern liberal state has produced discord. Indeed, when the role of government is to do good with other people’s money, there is no end to the mischief government can cause.

Many Americans seem to have lost sight of the idea that the role of government is not to instill values, but to protect those rights that are consistent with a society of free and responsible individuals. Everyone has a right to pursue happiness, but no one has the right to do so by depriving others of their liberty and their property.

When democracy overreaches, there is no end to the demands on the public purse, and the power of government grows. The Founding Fathers sought to create a republic with limited government, not an unlimited democracy in which the “winners” are allowed to impose their will and vision of the good society on everyone else. In such a system politics becomes a fight of all against all, like the Hobbesian jungle, and nearly everyone is a net loser as taxes rise, deficits soar, and economic growth slows.

Bankruptcy of the Welfare State

Most voters recognize that the welfare state is inefficient and that there is a built-in incentive to perpetuate poverty. It should be common sense that when government promises something for nothing, demand will grow and so will the welfare state. That has clearly been the case with health care spending under Medicaid and Medicare—and it will be the case with Obamacare. For all the money spent on fighting poverty since 1965, the official poverty rate has remained roughly the same, about 14 percent. Government waste is only part of the problem; the welfare state is also intellectually, morally, and constitutionally bankrupt.

Intellectually Bankrupt

It is intellectually bankrupt because increasing the scope of market exchange, not welfare, is the viable way to alleviate poverty. The best way to help the poor is not by redistributing income but by generating economic growth. Poverty rates fell more before the War on Poverty when economic growth was higher.

The failure of communism shows that any attenuation of private property rights weakens markets and reduces choice. Individual welfare is lowered as a result. The welfare state has attenuated private property rights and weakened the social fabric. When people look to government to provide retirement income, health care, mortgage guarantees, and various business subsidies, private initiative gives way to collectivist thinking. Economic decisions become politicized, and people lean more and more on government.

Morally Bankrupt

In addition to being inefficient and intellectually bankrupt, the welfare state is morally bankrupt. In a free society, people are entitled to what they own, not to what others own. Yet, under the pretense of morality, politicians and advocacy groups have created “rights” out of thin air. The rights to education, health care, housing, a minimum wage, and other “necessities” are now deemed to be sacrosanct. Politicians have become the high priests of the new state religion of welfare rights and self-proclaimed “benefactors” of humanity. If there is a problem—any problem—Congress is there to solve it, regardless of whether the Constitution gives it the power to do so.

The truth is “the emperor has no clothes.” Politicians pretend to do good, but they do so through coercion, not consent. Politicians put on their moral garb, but there is really nothing there. Government benevolence, in reality, is a naked taking. Public charity is forced charity, or what the great French liberal Frederic Bastiat called “legal plunder.”

Constitutionally Bankrupt

The welfare state is also constitutionally bankrupt; it has no basis in the Framers’ Constitution of liberty. By changing the role of government from a limited one of protecting persons and property to an unlimited one of achieving “social justice,” Congress, the courts, and the president have broken their oaths to uphold the Constitution.

In contrast, Congressman Davy Crockett, who was elected in 1827, told his colleagues, “We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money.”

What Should Be Done?

Polls show that most Americans distrust government and that more young people believe in UFOs than in the future of Social Security. Those sentiments express a growing skepticism about the modern welfare state. President Obama’s election does not mean most Americans have abandoned the principles of the U.S. Constitution and are in a rush to move toward a socialist state. What can be done to meet the challenge of safeguarding freedom?

First, and foremost, we need to expose the intellectual, constitutional, and moral bankruptcy of the welfare state. We need to change the way we think about government and restore an ethos of liberty and responsibility. The political process will then be ready to begin rolling back the welfare state.

We also need to impose term limits on Congress, liberalize campaign finance laws, and return government to the people, rather than settle for the status quo of special interests and professional politicians.

Furthermore, we need to hold members of Congress accountable if they overstep their constitutional authority. Before considering new legislation, members of Congress should ask, “Is this legislation consistent with the enumerated powers of the federal government and with the spirit of the Constitution as a ‘charter of freedom’?”

Although Americans have grown accustomed to the welfare state, the disappearance of welfare would strengthen the nation’s moral fabric and reinvigorate civil society. We should end the parasitic state—not because we want to harm the poor, but because we want to help them help themselves.

The federal government has become bloated and unable to perform even its rudimentary functions. It is awash with debt and is endangering America’s future. The collapse of communism and the failure of socialism should have been warning enough that it is time to change direction.

It is time to get government out of the business of charity and to let private virtue, responsibility, and benevolence grow along with civil society—just as they did more than 150 years ago when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his classic Democracy in America:

When an American asks for the cooperation of his fellow citizens it is seldom refused, and I have often seen it afforded spontaneously and with great good will. . . . If some great and sudden calamity befalls a family, the purses of a thousand strangers are at once willingly opened, and small but numerous donations pour in to relieve their distress.

The role of government in a free society is not to legislate morality—an impossible and dangerous goal—or even to “empower people”; the role of government is to allow people the freedom to grow into responsible citizens and to exercise their inalienable rights.

The modern liberal’s idea of “good government” has divorced freedom from responsibility and created a false sense of morality. Good intentions have led to bad policy. The moral state of the union can be improved by following two simple rules: “Do no harm” and “Do good at your own expense.” Those rules are perfectly consistent in the private moral universe. It is only when the second rule is replaced by “Do good at the expense of others” that social harmony turns into discord as interest groups compete at the public trough for society’s scarce resources.

James A. Dorn is Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Cato Institute. This essay is based on the author’s August 18, 1995, lecture at the Chautauqua Institution