Maria, in The Sound of Music, says, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…” and so, in our examination of the United States Constitution, where we stand in relation to it and the liberties it guarantees us, let’s start at the very beginning – with the well-known Preamble.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This single sentence lays out six noble purposes of the Constitution, to wit:
- form a more perfect union (as opposed to the weak and ineffective union which had been created by the Articles of Confederation)
- establish justice (justice requires law, recognized as legitimate by all, or most, of the citizens of a nation)
- insure domestic tranquility (keep the peace within the nation as opposed to the warring states that were charging tariffs on products coming from other states within the union and threatening civil war under the Articles of Confederation)
- provide for the defense of the nation (defense against all enemies, both foreign and domestic)
- promote the general welfare (probably the single most abused/misconstrued phrase in the entire Constitution! But, we’ll get there.)
- secure the blessings of liberty to all generations
In a letter to Edward Carrington dated 27 May 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote one of the most prescient statements of his career when he said, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.” How does this warning square with the size of government in 1775-1788 versus now?
Spending for government employment remained relatively steady at about 5% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) until the Great Depression, with temporary increases during the Civil War and WW1. (smallbusiness.chron.com)
According to the Brookings Institute, in 2020 approximately 15% of the workforce of the United States worked for the federal government in some capacity. Bear in mind that this 15% does not take into account those employed, directly or indirectly, by various state, county, and city governments.
Brookings Institute also claims, without providing any figures to back it, that this is a significant decrease from 50 years ago. They also state that roughly 40% of the Russian workforce are civil servants while also stating, “…in Russia, the size of the government and the dependency that this generates within the workforce tends to mute critical comments” thereby acknowledging one of the key reasons for limiting both dependency via employment as well as dependency on the government via “benefits” of other kinds.
In 1930, according to the St. Louis Fed, the Real federal government consumption expenditures for defense were 0.264% of GDP. At the end of 2019 it was 94.52% of GDP, down from 113.388% at the end of 2011. Fifty years ago, in 1970, it was 30.665% of GDP.
Welfare and social services payments, non-existent in 1930, have increased from 0.095% of the GDP in 1960 to 11.658% of GDP at the end of 2019 according to the St. Louis Fed.
Yes, you read both of those paragraphs right. Federal government expenditures for defense and welfare/social services ALONE exceeded GDP in 2019, as they have for about the last 20 years. Virtually all facets of the federal government have grown in similar leaps and bounds in the corresponding time period. Additionally, there have been numerous new facets and programs added.
It is impossible to retain any semblance of reason and sanity and not admit that the government has grown astronomically since 1788 when Jefferson gave the above warning.
The question then remaining to be answered is, where do we now stand in terms of our liberties?
Growing up in the 50’s as a US Citizen with an immigrant grandparent (as well as one that traced back to the Mayflower), I firmly believed that citizens of the United States of America were the freest people on earth.
I was incredulous in 2006 to learn that in several different rankings of liberty across nations, the US didn’t even make the top 10! In the most recent published rankings (early 2020), the US is down near 60th place in one and 20th in another. The questions raced through my mind – How can this be? What is this based on? Is it accurate, or deliberately weighted to make the US look bad? If it’s accurate, how have we allowed this to happen?
There’s an old saying about frogs to the effect that if you drop a frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out but if you put in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it will stay in the pot until it has been boiled to death.
As I have researched the answers to my questions about how far down the US is in the liberty rankings, it has become obvious that there are some measures which have been left out of the rankings that I believe are critical to both the reality and the maintenance of liberty. However, the harsh reality is that there are many countries where the citizens now (or at least pre-COVID) enjoy greater liberty in a number of critical areas than citizens of the United States.
I believe, as Thomas Jefferson did, that the growth in size of the government relative to citizens and GDP is a key factor in the gradual decline of our liberties.
Why, you ask, would larger government lead to a reduction in liberties?
Government grows in order to deal with perceived (or contrived) problems.
A former Prime Minister of Great Britain once wisely observed, “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” (William Pitt the Younger, Speech in the House of Commons, 18 Nov. 1783)
Forthcoming articles will examine in greater detail some of the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution versus how they have been lost, and what we can do to peacefully regain them. Knowledge is key, along with rejecting fear, the tool of necessity and tyranny.