Saturday, February 17, 2007

Questions No One Asks

Murray Sabrin

When public policy questions are “debated” in New Jersey or in any other state and in Washington D.C., the rhetoric on either side of the aisle in the legislature or Congress tends to focus on the cost of new or existing program. Virtually no one in the legislature or Congress even asks the most fundamental question: Is this expenditure authorized by the constitution? If not, is this program a worthwhile expenditure of taxpayers’ money? If the first question was asked, members of Congress would be hard pressed to find constitutional authority for scores of programs that have been routinely funded for decades.

According to Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, numerous federal government activities are authorized—coin money, establish post road, raise an army and navy, declare war, etc.-- none of which include healthcare, retirement income, education, housing, agricultural subsidies, corporate subsidies, research and development subsidies, minimum wages, foreign aid, nation building, etc, etc., etc. In short, the U.S. Constitution limits the activities of the federal government to a few modest programs so the people can exercise their freedoms to live in a society based on liberty.

The clause in Article I, Section 8 that big government types hang their hats on is in the introduction.

Section 8. The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States… (Emphasis added)

The introductory clause to Section 8 has been the rationale for the statists who have successfully expanded the role of the federal government into every activity of our society since the creation of the Republic. Note, the general welfare clause does not mean that the federal government will literally provide for every citizen’s welfare. That would be financially impossible. Nevertheless, the statists are still bemoaning the fact that the federal government does not do enough for the people. In fact, the federal government does virtually everything for the people except wipe their noses.

In addition, Section 8 also includes the following: “To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” This phrase also has provided justification for the interventionists to support and pass thousands of laws to increase the federal government’s control over the economy. If one accepts the literal interpretation of the above clause, then there is absolutely no economic activity that is off limits to federal government.

Besides, even if the constitution does justify intervention, it does not work. In other words, are government bureaucrats and planners wiser and smarter than the people in general, known as the market? If you say yes, then you support the ideas and beliefs of such compasssiaonte individuals as Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Khrushchev, Castro, Kim Il Jung, and of course everyone’s favorite villain, Hitler. All these individuals were collectivists who hated liberty and free enterprise. And they ruined their respective nations, killing tens of millions and creating untold human misery and devastation, because they believed and believe that the state is god, providing the people’s needs.

The modern crop of collectivists is composed of self proclaimed—and self righteous --compassionate individuals from both the Democrats and Republicans who claim they are expressing the “will” of the people. And they may be right. After decades of collectivist ideology in the schools, the media, pop culture, etc., big government ideas are now considered the norm by well meaning (let’s give many of them the benefit of the doubt) but misguided politicians and the public.

In New Jersey and other states, other questions besides the obvious one (Where is the constitutional authority for this program?) have to be asked: Who is responsible for your life? Who is responsible for the well being of your children? If you answer, me and me and my spouse, go to the head of the class. Instead, the politicians claim there has to be a government program for families who do not have health insurance, who need preschool, affordable housing, etc. In other words, individuals are having children and are unable to provide for their basic needs.

So in America today, you can have children without taking responsibility for your actions, because the government is supposed to have a program to meet your basic needs. And if you do not have children, you have to pay for the needs of other people’s children. The New Jersey State income tax, which is dedicated to public school aid, and school property taxes punish couples as well as single individuals who have made a decision not to have children. In short, the tax system punishes people for their choices. But don’t we live in a society that is “pro-choice”? A society that celebrates the freedom to choose in many areas. However, in American people are punished (taxed) for making rational choices so they can lead their lives according to their values. This is a gross injustice.

There are literally dozens of other examples that highlight the morass we find ourselves in, namely, expecting people to pay for other people’s needs. The only moral acceptable way to create a compassionate society is to have a vibrant marketplace that provides the goods and services people want, and a widespread nonprofit sector—the social sector—to help people who need assistance for their needs so they can become financially independent, or close to it. Financial independence should be the goal of every adult in America. And it is up to everyone to work for that goal, for themselves, and, if they can, for their neighbors.

Murray Sabrin, Ph.D., is professor of finance in the Anisfield School of Business, Ramapo College of New Jersey, where he is executive director of the Center for Business and Public Policy.