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Promoting the General Welfare
and Limited Government.

by Jonathan Wilson
January 19, 2004

Promoting the General Welfare_Dear Jon-and Limited Government We are now in an election year, and the season of caususes and primaries is underway. This may be an election that I sit out. My enthusiasm for our sitting President waxed during his first "retroactive" tax cut, and waned in the formation of Homeland Security.

Formerly I was of the opinion that people with integrity and competence could be trusted to bring good government. While that is still true, I have also concluded that there are core beliefs that guide each policy-maker. One's world-view is going to influence one's decisions when in power.

I do not denigrate the integrity our sitting President, nor of the Democratic candidates in the field. In terms of competence, Dean would probably be a capable president, as would Kerry or Gephardt. I have my doubts about Al Sharpton, but only on the basis of his experience. It is hard to know whether Clark has the requisite political instincts to navigate a legislative agenda through Congress.

However, I believe that as a result of any of these or the incumbent being President, our nation will be worse off than before. I also believe that the more any of these are able to compentently and with integrity prosecute their agendas according to their convictions, the more worse off we will be.
The leading candidates in both parties are sincerely wrong. The assumptions they carry about "what needs to be done" will result in the erosion of our liberties.

I could write books on the particulars ranging from the liberal socialists on the radical wing of the Democrats to the neoconservative imperialists at the center of the Republicans. Instead, by naming the key problem we get at the heart of the reason why Democrats and Republicans have become interchangeable.

In the preamble of the Constitution of the United States, the federal government articulated its purpose and mission, and this preamble includes "promote the general welfare."

This statement is not the problem. The problem is that people desiring the power of political office, have elevated this priority over all other priorities delineated in the constitution, including, the limitations imposed on the federal government in the Bill of Rights.

"Promoting the general welfare" has been the promise of good-hearted people running for political office. They want to make a difference, they want to leverage their political power to improve life for everyone. At least, that is the promise they make, and we have been so inculcated with these values that we now assume that such promises are appropriate to make.

The conversation is no longer about whether to tax income; the conversation is now about "how much?" More or less depends on whether you are a Republican about the General Welfare: "Tax cuts means more spending power for consumers, thus more demand and more jobs and economic recovery," or a Democrat about the General Welfare, "Tax cuts mean deficits in government and less money for social projects that help people meet needs they can't afford."

Well-meaning politicians have discovered two ways to bribe voters: Promise tax cuts because the government is so generous, or, promise entitlements because the government is so generous. Politicians have leveraged this clause in the constitution to create paternalistic, co-dependent government.

Paternalistic, co-dependent government thrives on a public's sense of entitlement. In addition to an entitlement to retirement security (no matter one's spending habits) and an entitlement to health security (no matter one's lifestyle choices), We the People now believe we are entitled to safety (no matter the impact on civil liberties).

The conversation is no longer about the need for federal law enforcement agencies, the conversation is now about "can they listen to private phone lines without a court order?"

We need to return to a discussion about what truly promotes the general welfare. Some would say "No Government at All!" This, however, has been tried among societies that subsist as hunters and gatherers. Many of these societies practice infanticide, the abandonment of the weak or elderly, and have average life-spans of 35-40 years. With little or no central planning for infrastructure, there is of course no running water, gas heat, electric power, or passable roads to get to places with services.

Yes, well, what we need then, goes the argument, is a society with the gumption for technological advancement that can therefore create commodities, for sale and exchange on a Free Market. The general welfare can be promoted in a state of anarchy, provided that it has the commodities by which people can pursue their self-interests.

Yet somehow, for some reason, this has never happened aside from some kind of state-like apparatus. Engineering and literacy are fundamental to a free market society, and neither of these things occur in the absence of a government.

This is true because engineering projects are pointless unless a community is served, and written language is pointless unless it addresses communication within a community. Individuals promote their self-interest by developing private resources within an infrastructure of public resources.

When communities are in discussion about what is to their collective advantage, that is called "politics." Politics happened among the Sumerians 6000 years ago and politics happen among the Amish today. To say that Old Order Mennonites or Amish live in anarchy is to completely deny their own internal controls which, by any other name, is "government," and to deny that they are blessed by the broader community of religious freedom and liberty accorded to them within the United States.

Politics happen everywhere that people live in community, share written language, and enjoy the advantages of progressive engineering. Roads, fibre-optics, heat, running water. This is called "infrastructure" and it does promote the general welfare, and in all cases in history where government has collapsed, SO HAS THE INFRASTRUCTURE.

Consider Rome. Consider Congo. I say that government is, in fact, necessary to our general welfare. I do not even say that it is a "necessary evil." What is so evil about traffic lights?

The absence of traffic lights in Mexico is proof positive that traffic lights are "good," right? If we agree that traffic lights are actually okay, then do we make the argument that it is up to private businesses to install traffic lights where they want? How on earth would they collect any profit? Of course, we have to assume that streets and roads are okay before we even talk about traffic lights.

Obviously, to promote the general welfare, the answer is not to do away with government. Neither is the solution "Big Government." How many times must our world learn the lesson that "Big Government" has preceded "no government" and the loss of infrastructure? Has the Soviet experiment taught us nothing? Do we learn nothing from Argentina's predicament, or Japan's?

What if the solution is limited government? What if the design for that limited government is found in the constitution of the United States? What if Americans knew their constitution and decided to see if it actually might work?

Practically, I see government's role, whether federal or local, as being within the infrastructure of the community. The "general welfare" means that the highway is intended to serve the public; everyone is better off for having it. The government should not have that kind of role in the marketplace of the community.

We have confused "welfare" with "entitlement spending," and it is these entitlements that skewer the marketplace, creating false demands and inflationary pressures in health care (costs rise faster than inflation), education (ditto), housing (ditto), and in more invisible ways in the groceries and other commodoties we buy thanks to subsidies and trade barriers.

Space travel, for now, is about infrastructure. Hopefully it will be about free enterprise in a few decades, but infrastructure will always be part of it. Thus I see NASA as within the competence of government, and heartily support it.

One question I have is whether Health Care can be re-evaluated as a component of the infrastructure rather than of the marketplace. I do not have the answer right now. We are all living longer, and diseases are being treated, and that is wonderful. Yet government is in bed with pharmaceutical companies, health-insurers are dictating services rather than medical doctors, and the inflationary pressures are a grind both on the consumer and on the tax-payer. The disparity in the available services is widening between rich and poor. Big government acting as a manipulator in the marketplace has not proven to be the answer. My conviction is that the whole system needs to be re-invented by the engineers of medicine.

That is where I hope people start to take the discussion sometime within this generation, because it does not look like it will happen during this election. Are we making appropriate assumptions about the role of government? Are the alternatives to Bush authentic as alternatives, or do they just represent the flip-side of the same philosophy of Big Government paternalism? Are we being responsible students of our own past when we make our plans for the future and the government's role in it? Is my entitlement to a pension the same thing as the General Welfare?

About the Author:
Jonathan Wilson is a pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church

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