In honor of Presidents’ Day, let’s revisit a topic from one of our Nineteenth Century Presidents. Grover Cleveland has the distinction of being one of America’s most prolific users of the veto pen (second only to FDR, who, let’s be honest, was elected to four terms to Cleveland’s modest two.)
Following droughts in Texas, Congress passed an appropriations bill to spend $10,000 (about $289,000 in today’s dollars) to buy seed for farmers whose crops had failed. President Cleveland vetoed the bill and issued what would become one of his most famous veto messages:
“I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.”
This quote addresses one of the main criticisms I hear when I talk about limited government. Many people ask me, “If not for the government, who would help the less fortunate? Who would help in a time of need?” The questioner makes a faulty assumption: if the government does not step in, then no one will.
The assumption ignores hundreds of years of history where charity was squarely a private endeavor administered through churches and faith organizations, guilds and mutual aid societies. Since the days of Grover Cleveland, our federal government has assigned itself a far-reaching role as a provider of assistance to the needy. Theodore Roosevelt famously proposed his “Square Deal.” Not to be outdone, FDR proposed a “New Deal.” Following this act, Lyndon Johnson had his “Great Society” and “War on Poverty” initiatives. Currently Barack Obama has made a theme of saying wealthier Americans need to pay more in taxes (i.e., “their fair share”) so the federal government can continue to fund ever growing entitlement programs.
But can government effectively address issues of poverty? Is it the most efficient provider of aid? The answer to this question relates back to my faith in the individual and the spirit of mankind to help fellow man. It isn’t that those in favor of limited government don’t want to help others; it’s that they know the government is often the least efficient way of doing so. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience, “[The] government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.”
Just this past holiday season, a heartwarming story in the news told of citizens going into K-Mart and paying off the layaway accounts of random customers. During October 2011’s unprecedented snowfall, one of my relatives lost power for days. It wasn’t the government that stepped in to lend a hand to my disabled uncle; rather, it was his neighbor who had his own generator who ran an industrial-strength electric cord between the houses to run my uncle’s refrigerator, saving him hundreds of dollars in food. My husband’s family, after being burdened with serious medical expenses, witnessed the love of fellow man when family friends organized a town-wide fundraiser. The town raised enough money to cover hospital expenses, pay for the family to fly out to the hospital in the middle of the country, and stay long enough to see their loved one heal. It wasn’t government aid, but the love of friends, that made this possible.
We must never lose faith in the spirit of the individual to do good. It’s only when we lose faith in ourselves that we fall prey to the belief that the government is the best and only way to solve our problems. Visionaries like Orson Wells saw it clearly. If we lose faith in each other and ourselves, we turn to the government to be our “Big Brother,” to take care of us under the mistaken belief that we can no longer take care of ourselves. And once we delegate all of our being, all of our power, all of our selves, to that amorphous entity known as “the government,” we give up the gift with which human beings have been blessed, the spirit of man.