By Dr. Harold Pease
Viewing past presidential elections, and the one we are now in, it becomes very obvious to me that the winner will be the one who gathers the most special interest groups by promising them favors in return for their vote, often from the public treasury. Today there are between 9 and 15 thousand lobbyists working on Capitol Hill seeking ever-larger portions of the tax pie for their faction. Purchased politicians can’t say no. When they can’t actually meet all the promises they have made, they simply raise the debt ceiling which signals the Federal Reserve to print more paper money, a process sometimes called quantitative easing. Hence we have passed to our children a debt in excess of 16 trillion dollars.
The Founding Fathers were quite familiar with the need to control special interest groups, then referred to as factions, as absolutely critical to liberty. Democratic governments in both Athens and Rome had bred and fed factions thus, “bread and circuses” was the cry of their factions before their loss of liberty.
James Madison, Father of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, defined a faction, in The Federalist Papers No. 51, as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and activated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” He saw the source of factions as being “the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination.”
Tension over income distribution will always exist because we do not share the same talents or work ethic. The problem with democracy, he continued, is that “there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or the obnoxious individual. Hence, it is, that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.” Free men are not equal and equal men are not free.
George Washington warned that factions “put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community” (Congressional Record, Feb. 19, 1973, S2653). He admitted that they “may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men, will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” Unions come to mind. Factions are focused only upon themselves and demand an ever larger share of the public pie until there is no pie. Look at Greece.
Madison knew that factions could not exist in non-free states, they could simply be outlawed, but in free states only a republic could control them. The Constitution was specifically designed to do just that by offering them no incentive to assemble on the federal level. Congress was given but four powers: to tax, to pay the debts, and to provide for the general welfare and common defense. Clauses 2-9 of Section 8, Article 1 defined what general welfare is and 10-17 what common defense is. No money was set aside for, or provided to, any special interest. The power distributed benefited all equally and at the same time. The federal role was as referee only. Our Constitution does not redistribute wealth; it leaves the individual to do that by his work ethic. It remains the fairest way. The Founders, who were all veterans, even resisted the temptation to carve out special privileges for themselves. With no money to divide, the vultures had no reason to assemble.
Unfortunately, the resistance to use the public treasury to further special interests did not last. A transcontinental railroad was desirable in the late 1860’s and the country was willing to look the other way, ignoring the Constitution, when two railroads, the Union and the Central Pacific, were given the privileged contracts. The completed track laid in 1869 wet the lips of other railroad building companies who thought that they should get monies from the public treasury as well. The government, invaded by “me too” applicants financed three additional transcontinental railroads by the early 1890’s.
Benjamin Harrison decided to promise veterans monies from the treasury in his election against Grover Cleveland, who honorably refused to do so. Harrison’s win opened Pandora’s box. Now that some were getting access to the treasury, other groups and causes felt that they should as well. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson opened it even wider allowing anyone with a cause to get taxpayer monies. Armies of special interest groups now assemble on the Capital to feed off the public trough. Damaged is the view that the federal government can only do and finance the listed items in Article I.
Factions will inevitably destroy our republic unless we return to the list. It will not be easy. We are addicted to debt, having everything right now, and passing it along to our children. Still, the foundation is there. Every remodel is first ugly and dirty before it shines, but getting back to where government cannot show favoritism to any group, interest, or faction is critical or this patient is terminal. The Founders had to start from the beginning to control factions. We already have machinery in place to do so but lack statesmen who will use it. It is time to find those statesmen.
Dr. Harold Pease is an expert on the United States Constitution. He has dedicated his career to studying the writings of the Founding Fathers and applying that knowledge to current events. He has taught history and political science from this perspective for over 25 years at Taft College. To read more of his weekly articles, please visit www.LibertyUnderFire.org.