August 6, 2011
Marie Lozito is a Registered Nurse, Licensed Massage Therapist, wife, mother, grandmother and life-long conservative. She wrote a text on medical massage and taught at New York College of Health Professions.
Interested in, and observing politics since 1960, she
ran for elected office in 2010.
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
In recent weeks we have watched the spectacle of the Congress and the President trying to come to grips with the debt and debt limit. It has been more than slightly revolting to me. A ridiculous situation that should never have happened in the first place and for which previous congresses are responsible. Or are they? Aren't they our representatives? Wasn't it our job as citizens and voters to keep an eye on what they were doing? Wasn't it our responsibility to vote out the ones who didn't do their jobs properly?
A system for ongoing public debt did not exist until Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole's introduction of the funding system in England during the 1720s. Then the secret was out that government debt need never be repaid. Just create a regular and dependable source of revenue and use it to pay the annual interest and the principal of maturing bonds. Then for every retired bond, sell a new one. In this way, a national debt could be made perpetual. This system was used in financing British overseas expansion and imperial wars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The Founding Fathers knew this system and disapproved of it. The disapproval of continuing or perpetual debt was obvious in their many letters and recorded conversations over the years. In a 1789 letter to his friend James Madison, Thomas Jefferson raised the philosophical and moral question of whether "one generation of men has a right to bind another." He believed it to be both wrong and immoral. Applying it to government borrowing, he argued that it was unjust and unrepublican for one generation of a nation to burden the next with the obligation to pay
its debts. Jefferson wrote, "No generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence". If a generation did pass debt to the next generation, "They (the next generation) and their soil (possessions) are by nature clear of the debts of their predecessors."
The fledgling republic the Founders created had a war debt from the the revolutionary war. Under the Articles of Confederation, the Federal government did not have the power to enforce the collection of taxes in order to pay down the war debt and the states were reluctant to give the Federal government the money needed to pay this debt. The Constitutional Convention was called in 1787 to address this and other problems encountered under the Articles of Confederation. Until 1860, the country's political elite viewed government debt as a temporary necessity, to be contracted only for pressing national purposes and to be paid in full within the lifetime of the generation who contracted it. Amassing debt to fund grandiose national projects and then funding it to perpetuity was regarded as corrupt, and probably worse, as very “English”.
The Civil War 1861-1865 caused the public debt to rise to unprecedented levels, from $75 million in March 1861 to
$2.8 billion in August 1865. The debt went from $2 per person to $75 per person. ( As of May 31, 2011 each person in America owes $45,939.) The politicians still remembered, as did “We the People”, that it is not good to have debt, and they worked to pay it down.
WWI skyrocketed the debt again. Again, they worked to pay down the debt but by the mid 1930s things were changing. FDR's New Deal and WWII rocketed the debt up, but there was almost no effort to reduce the debt this time. What happened?
In the early 20th century, the “progressive” ideas of communism and socialism were very popular. Many people read or heard the ideas behind socialism and thought that it sounded very good. (Communism is only a variation of socialism.) Certainly it fits into the Judeo-Christian belief in charity and helping the less fortunate. It appeals emotionally to the many of us who want to help others and have only good intentions. Many politicians, educators, reporters, as well as everyday people, began to accept, if not actually advocate for the idea of a strong central government that would take “From each according to his ability;” and give “to each according to his need.”-Karl Marx.
In theory it sounds good. In an ideal world, a perfect world, it might even work. However, people are not perfect and neither is this world. The theory appeals to the emotions but, as previous similar experiments in history show us, it does not work in practice. Careful and rational thought about human nature and the practicality of socialism would indicate it would not work now either. Nevertheless, many people went with the emotional appeal and didn't bother thinking rationally about it.
As a result, the carefully constructed government designed by the Founding Fathers and laid out in the Constitution, was eroded. As Daniel Webster said, “The Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions.” The Constitution created a Federal government that drew
its very limited powers from the many states. The states drew their limited powers from the people. The people were recognized as being the ones who had the God given rights and the power.
The Founders knew the danger of a strong central government. James Madison said, “It will not be denied that power is of an encroaching nature and that it ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it.” He felt the Constitution had enough constraints on the Federal government to accomplish this. He warned us that “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.”
He was so right!
We have been witnessing the “gradual and silent encroachments” for over 80 years. Today the Constitution is in shreds and the Federal government has usurped powers from both the states and the people. (Part 2 of HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? next week.)