Congressman Thornberry Discusses his views of government
People often ask about my views of government. It is a good time to share those views as we consider individual issues like federal spending, our national debt and deficit, and national security because it gives us a chance to sit back and look at the bigger picture. What is the proper role of government in our nation and in our individual lives?
I have tried to outline my views of government and would appreciate your feedback. The decisions we make now will not only affect us but will also shape the country for our children and future generations of Americans.
One of the most encouraging developments in American politics that I have seen in a while is the increased interest and participation by many people all across the country. In a way, it is unfortunate that it took the combination of bail-outs, excessive spending, global warming taxes and regulations, and government-run health care for so many Americans to rise up and take action. But they have, and it is a good thing.
The increased political involvement has slowed the pace of the liberal agenda. It also provides an opportunity for all of us to think deeper about our constitutional system and the role of government in our lives. The question is not just whether this proposal or that one is a good idea. The issues go back to our nation’s founding and involve the inherent tension between the quest for equality and the desire for freedom.
The Foundation: The Declaration of Independence
Historians debate the extent to which the words of the Declaration of Independence reflect a well-considered political philosophy or whether they were essentially Jefferson’s rhetorical flourish. Whatever the case in 1776, generations of Americans have come to regard the Declaration as a nearly sacred text, providing the foundation of the relationship between American citizens and their government.
The crucial section of the Declaration says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Each phrase is full of meaning:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident” – The great truths contained in the Declaration stand on their own. They are “self-evident” and require no supporting testimony or further evidence to prove their truth. They are foundational.
“All men are created equal.” – It took us time and a considerable amount of blood to get to the point where “all men” really means all men and all women, but we are there. Each individual has worth, and each should have opportunity.
“Endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights” – Our worth and our ‘rights’ come from our Creator – not from government, further establishing the foundational nature of the rights. Those rights cannot be taken away; they are inalienable, and they belong to each individual, not to a group or category of individuals, but to each person.
“Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” - The list is not exclusive, but it includes the essentials. Our Creator gives us life; and He gives us liberty; and He gives us the opportunity to pursue happiness as each individual defines it. Of course, the right to pursue happiness is not the same as the right to have happiness provided to you. Pursuit is active. It is something you do that requires effort.
The Founder’s notion of liberty can be misunderstood. As Matthew Spalding writes in "We Still Hold These Truths," 2009.(p. 8-9)
“Liberty is the essential idea that is America. It is at once our greatest inheritance, our greatest achievement, and our greatest bequest to posterity.” There is a distinction between freedom and liberty. Freedom is a general lack of restraint. “But from the Founders’ view, freedom must be understood within the context of constitutional and moral order, which meant reasonable limits and cultural bounds. Liberty means the rightful exercise of freedom, the balancing of rights and responsibilities.”
“To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men” – Thus, we come to the purpose of government – to secure or protect those Creator-given rights.
“Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” –The powers of government to secure the Creator-given rights must be just, and they come from the consent of the people. Thus, the people loan to government some of the power given to the people by the Creator, but it is limited powers and only for the legitimate purposes of government.
The Framework: Our Constitution
The Declaration provides us the philosophical underpinning of our citizens’ relationship with their government. The more practical framework of that limited government instituted to protect our Creator-given rights is provided by the Constitution. It is a written constitution with clear words that are available for all to read and understand, and those words trump any President or Supreme Court’s wishes and desires in dealing with the problems of the day. This written Constitution provides the basis for the rule of law – laws apply equally to all and no one is above or beyond its reach.
Two key features of the U.S. Constitution stand out. One is that it establishes a federal government of limited powers. Second, it divides power among three branches of government.
The Constitution enumerates or lists specific powers given to the three branches of the federal government. They are not illustrative examples; they are the complete list of powers given to the federal government. The Tenth Amendment makes clear that those powers not explicitly given to the three branches are reserved to the people and to the individual states.
Those powers which are given to the federal government are divided among three separate and equal branches of government. The Founders knew the problems that would develop if any one of the branches became dominant. In the modern communications era, however, the Executive, speaking with one voice, has the upper hand. And in recent years Congress has been too willing to follow along behind a President of the same party. For government to function as intended, each branch must stand up to its proper constitutional role.
Two Views of Government
There are two distinctly different approaches to the appropriate role of government. One is more activist and the other is more limited.
We have seen bursts of growth in government, especially in the New Deal of the 1930’s and the Great Society of the 1960’s. Today, the Obama Administration and the Democrats in Congress are pushing for a third great wave of government.
Already, government is more involved in the daily lives of individual Americans than the Founders could ever have imagined. Health care, education, income support, food, shelter, recreation – there is virtually no part of daily life that government does not touch or seemingly want to control.
Think government is not big and powerful in America today? Try not paying your taxes, or try not paying your parking ticket, or try getting away with something really offensive, like not separating recyclables into the proper bin. You will be found.
Often with the best of intentions, the pressure for more government involvement is constant. Being human, we are never satisfied with our current situation. We always want to improve it, or, too often, we want others to improve it for us. With instantaneous communication and an infinite amount of information at our fingertips, we know more about what we have -- and about what we would like to have -- than ever before. A government safety net to provide a minimal level of support is often not enough.
Part of human nature is to want what others have in a continual push for equality of outcome, not just equality of opportunity. (Of course, some will argue that a poor child can never have the same opportunities as a wealthy child, so we must even the playing field between them. Opportunity and outcome end up being the same thing.)
In the relentless push toward equality, disparities cannot be accepted. Everyone must be able to get the same education, the same health care, the same income.
It thus becomes an “inalienable right” to have the best health care our country can provide – or at least health care no worse than anyone else’s. Everyone must be treated the same, and government is the only organization big and powerful enough to ensure equality of outcome. Thus, government must grow, under this view of the world.
The push for equality in outcome is the force behind the Obama push for health care reform, global warming and energy regulation, new taxes, banking and financial regulation, and more. This attempt to smooth out inequalities, and put everyone on the same level, even if it is a lower level of quality.
But there is also something more. Advocates of activist government bring an attitude of “we know what is best for you.” Not trusting the individual to make choices, some of which may not be wise, these advocates would have the government make the choice for them and would feel sure that they will be better off.
The other view of government’s role and purpose rests in individual liberty, knowing that if each person is given opportunity, not all will use that opportunity successfully. Outcomes will be different. Yet, mandating equal outcomes limits the heights that some can achieve.
Leaving one to rise or fall based on ability, hard-work, or pure chance leads to unequal results. And we must be willing to live with that.
This view focuses on each individual receiving the Creator-given rights to which he or she is entitled rather than as part of a group or in comparison with others. It is individual focused.
As de Tocqueville realized in 1848,
"Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom; socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty; socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.” (Quoted in F. A. Hayek, "The Road to Serfdom," p. 77).
And Spalding affirms:
"From the Founders’ point of view, rights are inherently possessed by each and every individual and are turned into civil rights that apply equally to all persons through the constitutional process…Associating rights with interest groups gives rise to unlimited rights claims and endless legal battles and also leaves the core rights to wither as mere values, subject to shifting political opinion and court majorities." (Matthew Spalding, "We Still Hold These Truths," 2009, p. 203).
Core individual rights, bestowed by our Creator, are the things to value and safeguard above all else.
The limited government view holds that not everything that should happen, should be mandated by government. As flawed beings, we know that there will always be injustice and unfairness in the world. We see a problem and naturally want it solved. We demand government, which after all we fund with our taxes, to do it. But we often do not stop to ask ourselves whether we want government to try to solve all of the problems we find. What if government’s idea of fairness is different from our own? What if, to solve a problem, government must limit my choices, control my behavior? How far should that control go?
Conservatives and Our Government
On a practical day-to-day level, this issue of whether or not it is government’s role to right a particular wrong presents one of the greatest challenges to conservatives in government. We often have a strong view of right and wrong. It is hard to walk away from a clear wrong. But we must have the discipline to do so – or at least allow government to turn its head – rather than push government into roles and situations not authorized by the Declaration and the Constitution.
We trust more in markets – in a million small decisions by ordinary Americans – rather than in big comprehensive government making one big decision for us all. Knowing that individuals are flawed, we would still put our nation’s fate in the collective judgment of millions of Americans looking after themselves and their families and their neighbors.
We know that prosperity comes from the private sector, not from government.
We know that security comes from strength, not from weakness.
We want government to support essential institutions, like the family, and do things we cannot do for ourselves, like defend the country.
And what government does do, it should do well and efficiently.
What I believe
I believe that the federal government should safeguard those Creator-given rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence and those listed inthe Bill of Rights to the Constitution. They include the right to life and the right to keep and bear arms.
I believe that taxes should be low because I trust the individual to spend his or her money more wisely than the government will.
I believe in few, commonsense regulations that help ensure equal opportunity but do not determine outcomes.
I believe in a strong defense because protecting the country is the first obligation of the federal government.
I believe in continuing to push government to work smarter and more efficiently.