James Madison vs. Barack Obama

by Burt on June 3, 2014

The scandal at the Veterans’ Administration highlights the differences between constitutionalists and progressives.

Constitutionalists often see history as the story of how and why power is abused and people are oppressed. Constitutionalists believe in limited government because kings have almost always abused power. Liberty is best preserved when power is fragmented among different branches of government. As James Madison said, “if angels were to govern men, neither external or internal controls on government would be necessary.” But angels don’t govern men, so checks and balances are necessary.

Progressives, in contrast, believe that if much government authority is given to trained experts, even though they may not be angels, they will use their skills wisely to run the bureaucracy efficiently. The better good of society is served by increasing the power and scope of government and putting educated experts in charge.

President Obama is so confident in his progressive view that he felt little need to consult HHS Secretary Sebelius during the creation of the Obamacare website, or consult Secretary Shinseki about fulfilling the promises the president made to improve the Veterans’ Administration. A leader simply appoints the expert and then turns him or her loose to create efficiency and excellence.

Even during the Progressive Era (1900-1920), when progressive theory was first tested, massive flaws appeared in the big government strategy–not just with wasted money, and lazy bureaucrats, but with lack of concern for human life.

One of the first progressive crusades a century ago, for example, was to change by law what people could eat and drink. Alcohol was the nemesis to progressives and prohibition was the solution. Progressives campaigned for years for laws to be passed that would shut down the sale of alcohol.

In 1906 in the Department of Agriculture, Dr. Harvey Wiley wanted to go even further and ban Coca Cola, borax, salicylic acid, and sodium benzoate for starters. How did Wiley determine the many items he wished to ban? Did he test them on animals? No, as historian Larry Schweikart points out, Wiley tested the chemicals he distrusted on a “poison squad” of human guinea pigs. Sometimes Wiley’s human volunteers became very sick, other times they did fine. But the larger point is that to Wiley, humans were expendable in the service of a larger idea–that experts should determine what people should be allowed to eat and drink. In a similar way, the deaths at the VA, though regretted by today’s progressives, are part of progressives’ larger idea of entrusting and growing government to make the nation better.

Constitutionalists believe that bureaucrats in power are likely to abuse it. James Madison devoted much of Federalist Paper # 51 on how “to control the abuses of government.” If there is a problem in the marketplace, Madison believed that people making choices was better than bureaucrats banning products.

Progressives have for a century cultivated the idea that if something doesn’t work well, turn the problem over to government. When the problem then gets worse, increase the funding to the government agency. The failure of this concept is not just that government is often incompetent, but that government is also inhuman, uncaring, and willing to sacrifice lives to perpetuate power.

One final illustration of this point: In last Sunday’s Wall Street Journal, Henrik Bering wrote a review of a new book entitled Enduring Courage, which describes the life of war hero Eddie Rickenbacker. During World War I, the development of parachutes for pilots became possible. Did the Allied governments supply parachutes to their pilots? No, Bering says, “the higher-ups . . . decided against the use of parachutes . . . believing they would tempt the pilots to bail out of the planes with the slightest excuse.” The plane was worth more to the bureaucrat than the life of the pilot.

That would not have surprised James Madison. Bureaucratic “higher-ups”, whether they were making rules for pilots in WWI, for foods to be banned in 1906, or for giving treatment to veterans in 2014, all put government power and expansion ahead of human lives. To our Founders, limited government meant liberty, compassion, and the right to pursue human happiness. If we have compassion today, we will cut the power of government back into its constitutional boundaries.

{ 2 trackbacks }

“James Madison vs. Barack Obama” by Burt Folsom | The Importance of the Obvious
June 3, 2014 at 6:38 pm
Some Links
June 6, 2014 at 8:43 am

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: