As a psychologist, I spend a good deal of time thinking about what people are thinking, and this Presidents Day got me thinking about what Americans, as a nation, are thinking. In a nation that became the wealthiest, strongest and freest the world had ever known in less than two short centuries by practicing free-market capitalism, many of our leaders and citizens seem all too eager to abandon the time-honored, time-tested principles that built the nation for socialism, perhaps irrevocably, to avoid some short-term financial pain. What are we thinking?
As I pondered that question, Presidents Day prompted me to look back in time and see what some older, wiser Americans were thinking about such things.
I’ll begin with James Madison. If you’re a product of the public school system and you’re younger than 25 years old, you might not recognize that name, but he was one of our nation’s Founding Fathers, sometimes called the “Father of the Constitution” (I know, the public schools teach abhorrence of such patriarchal terminology, but there were no “Founding Mothers” – could’ve been, but weren’t, sorry), and our nation’s fourth president.
In 1794, a bill appropriating $15,000 for relief of French refugees from a Caribbean insurgency came before Congress, and Madison, then a member of the House of Representatives, said, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”
I wonder how he’d feel about the hundreds of billions of dollars of “benevolence” about to be doled out in the name of stimulating the economy! Even earlier in his legislative career, Madison made this prescient observation, the truth of which there are perhaps no clearer illustrations in our nation’s history than the transfers of assets from private to public control that have taken place over the past six months: “There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
I next looked to the speeches and writings of Thomas Jefferson, another of our Founding Fathers and our third president. Like Madison, Jefferson was clearly concerned about governmental interference with free markets. In his inaugural address in 1801, he said, “A wise and frugal government … shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” Contrast that to the inaugural address that we heard last month! “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,” Jefferson wrote in 1788, and it’s tough to argue that government has ever gained more ground in so short a time as it has in recent months.
As a psychologist looking for timely wisdom among past presidents, a quote from President Franklin Pierce drew my attention. In 1854, he vetoed a popular bill championed by social reformer Dorthea Dix that would’ve allocated tax dollars to provide services for the mentally ill.
Explaining his veto, Pierce simply said, “I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for the public charity … [to invent such] would be contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded.” It’s clear that in 2009, Congress and the president have no such reservations about inventing constitutional authority for public charity (and many less-noble public giveaways)!
Benjamin Franklin never served as president, but he, too, was among our Founding Fathers, and he, too, was concerned about the federal government meddling in free markets, even with the best of intentions. In 1776, the year our nation declared independence from Great Britain, Franklin said, “I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.” I was honored to learn that I’ve been in such distinguished company when I’ve often stated Dr. Brian’s “Silver Rule”: “You don’t get people to do more of the right things by making it easier for them to do the wrong things.” I think Franklin would agree, and I think the principle is illustrated perfectly by keeping overextended homeowners in their homes and by creating unnecessary work for unskilled workers, both of which do nothing but reinforce irresponsibility. Like Madison and Jefferson, Franklin worried, all the way back then, about exactly what’s happening before our eyes in 2009, stating, “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”
Amid calls for sweeping new regulations on Wall Street aimed at preventing “excessive enrichment,” I stumbled upon a quote from Irish author C.S. Lewis that I think would meet with the approvals of Madison, Jefferson, Pierce and Franklin: “It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of Earth.”
So what are we who believe in adhering to free-market principles yet have compassion for those presently facing foreclosure or lacking marketable skills to think? As an attorney, I found the words of Robert Houghwout Jackson, Supreme Court Justice and Chief Judge at the Nuremberg Trials, timelessly apt: “It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error.”