The Founders Were No Libertarians

December 27th, 2010 at 6:57 pm | 76 Comments |

| Print

Christopher Beam has written a thought provoking, ampoule well-argued piece in a mainstream liberal magazine on libertarians. Libertarians, search as he notes, get a lot of flack from a lot of people.  But as a liberal critic of libertarianism he makes a certain mistake that bothers me when libertarians use it and that is equally wrong coming from him.  The Founders were not libertarians.  They were constitutionalists.

Beam writes that the libertarians have not been so strong since the early days of the Republic.  He states “The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society’s most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them.”  This is not true.  It limited the federal government to certain roles but not “the state.”  He does note that John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were not libertarians but  John Marshall is ignored, and even the other Virginians do not meet the test.

In fact, this assertion confuses constitutionalists with libertarians.  George Washington belonged to the Established Church (Episcopalian) of the State of Virginia; he also was the chief vindicator of national power in the new republic.  Thomas Jefferson determined to wage war by simply denying foreigners the right to trade with the U.S.  So did Madison.  What libertarian has ever thought the government could cut off trade between free individuals?  Further, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine supported the French Revolution.  That revolution denied there was anything the state could not do in the name of the people.  Jefferson never repudiated his support for that tyranny and Thomas Paine was only slightly more dismissive even after it nearly killed him.  Of all the Founders, Patrick Henry is closest to the libertarian beau ideal.  He was against the king, against the Constitution and against the French Revolution all of which he saw as an assault on traditional liberties.  But for all of the Virginians, I leave aside the issue of slavery entirely.  Similarly, libertarians have only a vague relationship to the “second founding” of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.  On the plus side, by their lights, it got rid of slavery; on the negative side it gave the federal government the power to enforce such elimination and concomitant political and social rights.

The Founders believed in carefully delineated federal powers either broad (Hamilton) or limited (Jefferson, sometimes) but all believed in a more powerful state than libertarians purport to believe in.  If ever there was a libertarian document it was the Articles of Confederation.  There was no national power.  The federal government could not tax.  Its laws were not supreme over state laws.  It was in fact, the hot mess that critics of libertarians believe their dream state would be… and it was recognized as such by the majority of the country and was why the Constitution was ratified.  The Articles of Confederation is the true libertarian founding document and this explains the failure of libertarianism.

Libertarianism, either ancient or modern, flounders on its ability to deal with families or foreigners.  Libertarian solutions are often the right answer to many economic and social questions but the philosophy has proven again and again it cannot deal with tyrants, teenagers or two-year olds.  What is the libertarian approach to broken homes, and to attaching children to their fathers in general?  To the education of children to promote a libertarian society?  How do libertarians deal with bad actors abroad?  Apparently by letting them have their way until they attack the United States directly, and not even then, (as we see by libertarian opposition to the Afghan war).  Modern wars have sometimes required a draft.  Libertarians balk at this.  Thus libertarian government always stands vulnerable to foreign conquest and the loss of rights and autonomy that entails.

Libertarianism appears to be like arsenic, a stimulant in small doses but deadly poison when taken in large doses.  For this reason, as a broad based political movement, libertarianism will always end up rolling Mr. Beam’s twelve-sided die in its mom’s basement because it fails when the family or the state are under threat.

Recent Posts by John Vecchione



76 Comments so far ↓

  • WillyP

    It was nonsense and nothing more. Complete, sheer, intended nonsense.

    I must have thought back to when the liberals blamed President Bush for literally causing the hurricane, and thought, hey… if a man can, why can’t a man’s words?

    A joke. Relax.

  • elsongarino

    nhthinker–
    “Proper interpretation of “General Welfare” would have prevented the whole role of the Feds in any New Orleans’ levee fiasco.” Only by removing the government from the picture. Just what I want–a government that solves the problem of its own responsibility for the welfare of its citizens by simply removing itself from the equation.

    Do you believe any private contractor, working under the same understandings about the possible max. strength of a hurricane in the NO area, would have built levees and dikes strong enough to withstand Katrina? If not are you saying, “Tough S**t NO, you don’t fit my def of General Welfare, so the Federal gov’t won’t build your levees and the private sector will likely do an inadequate job just like we did. “

  • balconesfault

    WillyP – I got it!

    nhthinker
    Use of powers that an entity does not have rights to is wrong,

    OK. But I say that Congress does have rights to promote the General Welfare by funding an airport in Nashville, a bridge in Alaska, or a dam in Colorado. And for the most part, virtually everyone in America understands that we are stronger as a nation … that our General Welfare is promoted … when the Federal Government actively works to improve our National infrastructure.

    We’re not 50 confederated states. Get over it.

  • Rabiner

    nhthinker–
    “Proper interpretation of “General Welfare” would have prevented the whole role of the Feds in any New Orleans’ levee fiasco.” Only by removing the government from the picture. Just what I want–a government that solves the problem of its own responsibility for the welfare of its citizens by simply removing itself from the equation.

    Are you suggesting that New Orleans should levy a tax to pay for levees that benefit everyone who lives up and down the Mississippi river as opposed to the Federal Government doing it? Because the only way for them to pay for such a levee system to help keep their city above water and help commercial water traffic is to find revenues to pay for it. I’d personally rather the Federal government do it instead of Louisiana or New Orleans and then having them tax the hell out of all the States upriver.

  • ktward

    WillyP.

    I bet I do disagree with 95% of what you assert, but I laughed out loud @“I think what you’re missing is that the general welfare clause literally caused the hurricane.”

    I also roll my eyes at 95% of nhthinker’s comments. Mostly not out loud.

  • nhthinker

    “But I say that Congress does have rights to promote the General Welfare by funding an airport in Nashville, a bridge in Alaska, or a dam in Colorado.”

    You think its OK to intentionally abuse the term “General Welfare”: It’s basically a dishonest use of language. Maybe it’s just lack of respect for what the founders were actually saying.

    I hope you don’t mind too much that I’ll calling you on it. Most people tend it misuse it unintentionally. I thought you should know better.

  • nhthinker

    rabiner,

    “I’d personally rather the Federal government do it instead of Louisiana or New Orleans and then having them tax the hell out of all the States upriver.”

    Congress was granted the right to tax for the “General Welfare”. It was not granted the right to create unique projects for a targeted set of beneficiaries as opposed to a general use. The “General Welfare” clause PRECLUDED canals for some cities. It certainly should have PRECLUDED levees for New Orleans.

    It’s arguable that the federal government should have constitutional rights to create a project that benefits a region and therefore makes the country stronger. My point is that right was NOT granted by the “General Welfare” clause. If you want to stay true to the constitution, the right thing to do would be to AMEND the constitution to add “targeted Regional or city welfare” in addition to “General Welfare”.

    But you guys really don’t much care whether you are perceived as too lazy to do things constitutionally, do you?

  • elsongarino

    “It certainly should have PRECLUDED levees for New Orleans.”
    You want to cling to your insight into what the Founders meant with every word they wrote. You understand it. They don’t.
    But you don’t hesitate in assuming that the Founders “should have PRECLUDED levees for New Orleans.”

    “If you want to stay true to the constitution, the right thing to do would be to AMEND the constitution to add “targeted Regional or city welfare” in addition to “General Welfare”.”

    Nah. Let’s assume my interpretation is correct, and YOU AMEND the Constitution, if you can, to meet your interpretations. It’s not easy to do. The Founders made it that way. Meanwhile, we’re both stuck with the SC interpretations–which happen, for now, to be on my side.

  • Rabiner

    nhthinker:
    “It’s arguable that the federal government should have constitutional rights to create a project that benefits a region and therefore makes the country stronger. My point is that right was NOT granted by the “General Welfare” clause. If you want to stay true to the constitution, the right thing to do would be to AMEND the constitution to add “targeted Regional or city welfare” in addition to “General Welfare”.”

    You’re understanding of the ‘general welfare’ is so small and focused that no spending by Congress on any program or project could pass constitutional muster. Social Security only helps beneficiaries at the time they are receiving benefits so that’s not ‘general’. Medicare only helps seniors clearly leaving everyone else out so that’s not ‘general’. Interstate highways, individual ones, only help those states that they’re in so that’s not ‘general’. Its gotta be nice to have such a myopic view of the word ‘general’ that you only have to make one argument for every program you just happen not to like.

  • nhthinker

    rabiner: {Rabiner’s misunderstanding}”You’re understanding of the ‘general welfare’ is so small and focused that no spending by Congress on any program or project could pass constitutional muster.”

    I had already said my understanding of “general welfare” arguably includes SS and the Inter-State program: “SS directly benefits almost everyone in every state in the US and therefore could be considered “General Welfare”.”

    But keep arguing with your straw man.

    The “canals for cities” is the cleaver I use to differentiate “general welfare” from “special interest welfare”. If you can rationally argue that a program is less special interest than a set of canals for a bunch of cities, then you have a chance of passing the “general welfare” definition as the constitution intended it. Otherwise, you are perverting the term. Now that you know the history, any advocacy that the founders meant “general welfare” as a support for special pork that gets passed by Congress is knowingly dishonest.

  • nhthinker

    elsongarino
    “Do you believe any private contractor, working under the same understandings about the possible max. strength of a hurricane in the NO area, would have built levees and dikes strong enough to withstand Katrina? If not are you saying, “Tough S**t NO, you don’t fit my def of General Welfare, so the Federal gov’t won’t build your levees and the private sector will likely do an inadequate job just like we did. “”

    I’m saying the cost of protecting NO properly was many billion dollars more than Congress was willing to appropriate. Holland builds for Cat 5 storms all the time. Because it was a Federal program, people assumed it would be safe enough. The people in Washington, DC making the appropriation were disconnected from the people that would be at risk. The Dutch thought the NO program was a joke.

    Do you like the feds rebuilding million dollar houses that are built in forest fire country? Do you like the Federal government rebuilding every home that gets built in a flood zone without flood insurance?

    It’s idiotic and it is also not sanctioned by the “general welfare” clause of the constitution- but it feels good.

  • Beck and Napolitano Conveniently Overlook the Sixteenth Amendment « The Harvard Political Review

    [...] Nevertheless, the Sixteenth Amendment is a pretty severe rebuke to the extreme-libertarian view of the Constitution promulgated with regularity on Beck’s program, where the Constitution always stands in opposition to federal power. The amendment presents a serious challenge to the idea that the Constitution is a “libertarian document,” a statement for which Christopher Beam has gotten in a lot of trouble. [...]

  • elsongarino

    The Netherlands planned, built and paid for the Delta Works. You’re saying now that it was the unwillingness of the US govt to fund proper construction of the levees that was the source of the Katrina problem. The exceptional US government couldn’t do what one of the non-exceptional countries did? Now we’ve gone to the Dutch for pointers on how to do it right. Do you think, given your interpretation of General Welfare, that our exceptional government will get it right this time and plan, with the help of the Dutch, build, and pay for something that is functionally equivalent to the Delta Works. Note: If you’ve never been inside the Delta Works, you can’t appreciate what government money properly directed can accomplish.

  • nhthinker

    “You’re saying now that it was the unwillingness of the US govt to fund proper construction of the levees that was the source of the Katrina problem. The exceptional US government couldn’t do what one of the non-exceptional countries did?”

    I’m saying that the federal government made itself a partner to a problem that it was not willing to take sufficient responsibility for and in the process caused people to view the project as safer than it actually was. The Dutch offered help during the 60s. The Americans were too conceded to take their help. The Dutch build for failure probability of less than once in 250-1000 years: the US in the 1960s were willing to build for failure probability of 30-60 years (Cat 3).

    The safest answer would have been to condemn much of old NO or to spend huge amounts of money to benefit very few people. Certainly NOT for the benefit of the “General Welfare”, the whole people of the US as an expenditure like the PO or SS or a national air traffic control system.

  • elsongarino

    “very few people” From your perspective or mine?

  • nhthinker

    “very few people” NOT EQUAL “general welfare”

    “general welfare” EQUALS “most US citizens”
    (As in, users of the Post Office; users of Air Traffic Control; etc.)

  • elsongarino

    NO, in the past and into the present is arguably important to the “General Welfare of the Whole People of the US”

    “The Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the fledgling United States in 1803, was made for the primary purpose of securing the city of New Orleans and its port.”

    The city was quite important to the general welfare in 1803. We clearly owed it our best efforts, then. But, is it the good old American way to redefine “General Welfare” after the initial valuable aspects of something have been exploited? Then the phrase ” General Welfare” becomes more weaselly. I would argue that even though the government was “not willing to take sufficient responsibility for” NO and ultimately the damage done to NO because of inadequate levee construction and design, that in no way proves that the government shouldn’t “take sufficient responsibility for” NO.

    And the following:
    “The port of New Orleans is one of the busiest ports in America. The city is home of major shipbuilding facilities, a naval base, the nation,s Marine reserve headquarters and the world’s first World Trade Center.”
    Nothing there for the general welfare, right? Nothing that comes into “one of the busiest ports in America” is going to affect the general welfare. . .

    “Louisiana’s natural resources are crucial to the operation of the United States and include:
    11% of US petroleum
    19% of the country’s reserves of natural gas
    . . .
    Second in total energy production
    Second highest mineral producer in the United States
    One of the world’s most important ports
    Top port for imported natural rubber”

    Sounds pretty important for the General Welfare to me. Do you think it’s possible that if NO were removed from the social equation the whole people of the US would be affected ? I find it hard to imagine that they wouldn’t.

    Source: New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation–Feel free to contest the facts contained above.

    http://www.neworleansonline.com/pr/releases/releases/Why%20New%20Orleans%20is%20Important%20to%20America.pdf

  • nhthinker

    “NO, in the past and into the present is arguably important to the “General Welfare of the Whole People of the US” ”

    NO is a nice place.
    The “General Welfare” clause was to prevent special interest use of federal tax dollars.

    Please explain how a levee program for NO is less special interest than a canal program for cities as proposed by Ben Franklin.

  • elsongarino

    “Benjamin Franklin, during the Constitutional Convention, proposed a tax for canals. Canals were important for businesses to receive and ship merchandise.
    “Gouverneur Morris of New York argued that it wasn’t right to tax the whole people while only those towns that had canals would benefit”

  • elsongarino

    You provided this earlier: “Benjamin Franklin, during the Constitutional Convention, proposed a tax for canals. Canals were important for businesses to receive and ship merchandise.
    “Gouverneur Morris of New York argued that it wasn’t right to tax the whole people while only those towns that had canals would benefit”

    The wording o f Morris’ argument seems relevant here. I agree with him. But obviously, what NO had and HAS to offer to the “whole people” is not something from which “only the towns (in this case NO) that had canals (levees, what have you) would benefit.” I think the list in my 1/11 10:28 provides some compelling evidence in that regard.The “General Welfare” clause was to prevent special interest use of federal tax dollars.

    As for ” The “General Welfare” clause was to prevent special interest use of federal tax dollars.”—well chalk another one up for the Founding Fathers. They sure succeeded on that one, didn’t they. . . :(

  • nhthinker

    “As for ” The “General Welfare” clause was to prevent special interest use of federal tax dollars.”—well chalk another one up for the Founding Fathers. They sure succeeded on that one, didn’t they. . . :(

    Actually, the Founders had succeeded for 150 years until FDR started packing the Supreme Court. Then, special interest flooded in and the meaning of “general” was redefined by liberal judges. I think the meaning could one day be redefined back to its original intent.

  • elsongarino

    Lobbyists were around in the 19th century. The Federal Tax has been around for a while. You’d have a hard time convincing me that somewhere, sometime in the 19th century, the two didn’t come together–well before FDR packed the SC. That would mean, of course, that the Founders didn’t succeed for 150 years.

  • nhthinker

    I am not your tutor- Read what you want about the General Welfare clause and come to your own conclusions. Or just choose ignorance to the issue. Your choice.

  • elsongarino

    I’ll do as you have done.

  • elsongarino

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2011_01/027375.php

    On second thought, I’ll just choose to follow your first admonition: “Read what you want about the General Welfare clause and come to your own conclusions.” Seems to be all the rage these days.
    There’s a virtual cornucopia of hyperlinks that could provide much food for thought for the likes of Scott Garrett —if he were inclined to seek said nourishment.

  • Best of FF: Were the Founders Libertarians? | Robert Butler

    [...] me toss in my 5 cents worth on the question of whether the Founders were [...]