Dan Popp
What is the American idea?
By Dan Popp
September 8, 2014

Congressman Paul Ryan is hawking "reform conservatism" again. This time, sadly, he's being abetted by Hillsdale College. The July/August, 2014 edition of their publication Imprimis carries a portion of a speech by Mr. Ryan. The speech is filled with threadbare clichés ("hardworking Americans"), misrepresentation of the Founders and a pile of broken logic. To quote Ryan:
    What is the American Idea? In short, it is self-government under the rule of law. It is rooted in our respect for the rights with which we are each endowed, a respect that shapes a society where every person can work hard, achieve success, and advance in life.
Let's answer for ourselves the Congressman's excellent question: What is the American Idea? Self-government, yes. But the Founders never conceived of self-government without the government of God. It was Bible translator John Wycliffe who penned the phrase popularized by Lincoln: "This Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people." (Emphasis mine.) George Washington said, "Mankind, when left to themselves, are unfit for their own government," and, "It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible." More on this later.
    America's Founders ... declared that human beings are created equal, with unalienable rights that come from God. They declared that government is legitimate only if it secures these rights. They were the first to announce to the world – and then to prove by their example – that the best government rests on the consent of the governed.
Please note for future reference that Paul Ryan here acknowledged that unalienable rights come from God, and that "government is legitimate only if it secures those rights."
    Here's a practical distinction: There is a difference in principle – a clear bright line – between two kinds of government programs. On the one hand, there are those that can be repaired and restructured within the bounds of limited government. Let's review those, and seek to reform and upgrade them, making them more efficient through market mechanisms, more decentralized and transparent, more fiscally sound and more conducive to self-government.
What "government programs" did the Founders institute? Um, there was... uh, well, of course we all remember the... er...hmm. Didn't they buy some Bibles for the Indians? Does that count as a "government program?"

The truth is that anything you can call a government program is almost certainly unconstitutional on its face. The federal government is tasked only with keeping the peace and setting some basic rules for commerce. No legitimate function of government requires or justifies a "program." So there are not "two kinds of government programs," Mr. Ryan, there is only one kind: the Not-So-American-Idea kind.
    On the other hand, some government programs require massive bureaucracies to direct large segments of our society and economy through arbitrary regulations that increase uncertainty and insecurity. These programs, which have resulted in a hodgepodge of boards and commissions with uncertain responsibilities and unaccountable decision-making, undermine self-government. The way they operate also creates relationships between government and money that encourage cronyism and breed political corruption. More and more Americans are right to see these programs as threats to their freedom. They are incompatible with the American Idea, and they must be rejected.
So some government programs don't require massive bureaucracies (despite all evidence), don't feature arbitrary regulations and don't balloon out of control due to the power-lust of politicians and the selfishness of citizens? And these magical programs would be...?

What Paul Ryan is missing is the reason that the Founders mistrusted government, which is that government is made up of people. Unfortunately for Ryan's vox populi vox dei fantasy, this thing called The People is also made up of, well, people. The Founders feared tyrants, but they feared mobs more. Alexander Hamilton said, "It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity."

John Adams was even stronger in his warning:
    We may appeal to every page of history we have hitherto turned over, for proofs irrefragable, that the people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous and cruel as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power ... All projects of government, formed upon a supposition of continual vigilance, sagacity, and virtue, firmness of the people, when possessed of the exercise of supreme power, are cheats and delusions ... The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratical council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor. Equally arbitrary, cruel, bloody, and in every respect diabolical.
But Ryan continued his own, alternative history lesson:
    Now, the Progressives were right about something: The country was crying out for a national safety net, especially following the Great Depression. Americans agreed that we should pool our resources to protect hardworking families.
If "the country was crying out for a national safety net," it was partly because of the government's contribution to the (First) Great Depression. The feds came along and said, "Hey, wow. This stock market is too risky a place to put your retirement money. We'll just take care of that for you" – not admitting that the government is one of the primary influences on the stock market. "We'll solve this really bad problem for you – never mind that we pretty much created the problem."

Ryan says, "Americans agreed that we should pool our resources to protect hardworking families." But voluntarily pooling our resources is worlds away from having resources taken from us and put into a pool. And notice again that this robbery is justified because "Americans agreed." Paul Ryan is a (small "d") democrat. He seems to think that if 51 percent of Americans thought it would be a good idea to rape you, and as long as there wasn't too much paperwork involved, you would be un-American to complain about it.

    Here's the difference: Everybody understands the safety net, and everybody benefits from it. Take Social Security. We all know how it works – or at least how it's supposed to work. When you're working, you pay in. And when you're retired, it pays out.
If that's what Social Security was, I could put my money into my account, and my money would earn interest for me, and no one else would be able to touch my money. But in that case there would be no need for Social Security. Social Security is a redistribution scheme. That is its purpose. Redistribution is robbery. Redistribution is evil. Redistribution is based on the premise that I do not own anything – that I didn't build that – and if I did, too bad for me.

Mr. Ryan, either there is such a thing as private property, or there is not. There is no possible moral universe in which both (A) I own what I've earned and the government protects my God-given right to my property, and (B) the government righteously takes my property without my consent and gives it to someone else for a good cause. A quasi-progressive/quasi-Founders philosophy violates the laws of logic.

Finally from the Congressman:
    The safety net jibes with self-government; the Progressive agenda does not.
We're forced to conclude that what Ryan means by "self-government" is not what the Founders meant by "self-government." Hear John Adams on the matter:
    If a majority are capable of preferring their own private interest, or that of their families, counties, and party, to that of the nation collectively, some provision must be made in the constitution, in favor of justice, to compel all to respect the common right, the public good, the universal law, in preference to all private and partial considerations... And that the desires of the majority of the people are often for injustice and inhumanity against the minority, is demonstrated by every page of history... To remedy the dangers attendant upon the arbitrary use of power, checks, however multiplied, will scarcely avail without an explicit admission some limitation of the right of the majority to exercise sovereign authority over the individual citizen... In popular governments, minorities constantly run much greater risk of suffering from arbitrary power than in absolute monarchies.... – John Adams
To Adams and the other Founders, the will of the majority was a potential guide, but also a danger. Only when Americans were virtuous and moral (said Adams), religious (said Washington), educated and enlightened (said Jefferson) could popular government be a blessing. They envisioned not naked "self-government," a la Ryan, but self-government bound by "justice." The real, original American Idea was a society built on "respect [for] the common right, the public good, the universal law...." That universal law is the moral law – God's law. God's law is encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, which include You Shall Not Covet and You Shall Not Steal. In God's law, as in the Founders' vision, the social safety net exists outside government. There, gifts are given but nothing is taken. Charity comes with accountability. Love buys no votes.

The American Idea is not "self-government;" the Greeks thought of that. It is not "under the rule of law" if those laws could contradict the absolute moral law. I think the American Idea is a nation "under God, with liberty and justice for all." If I'm right, it would be difficult to conceive a more anti-American idea than godless redistribution by government force.

Any second-year Hillsdale student should know that.

© Dan Popp


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