This column posits that President Reagan overstated the case when he said “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” To the contrary, government often is a critical part of the solution.
The Preamble to the Constitution is a blueprint for the role of the federal government. It recites such noble concepts as a more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquility, the general welfare and liberty. These lofty principles are given meaning by Articles I and II of the Constitution, which define the government’s legislative and executive powers, respectively.
Though more definitive than the Preamble principles, the enumerated powers nevertheless are subject to interpretation. “Originalists” assert the Constitution must be interpreted according to its original meaning, based on conditions that existed in 1789. Others believe the Constitution is a “living document” that should be interpreted in light of evolving conditions and events, perhaps the most important being the great expansion of knowledge.
Society as we know it could not exist unless the Constitution is a living document. Roads, railroads, automobiles or airplanes are not mentioned in the Constitution; without federal programs, the interstate transportation infrastructure could not exist. Science, other than the protection of inventions and writings, is not mentioned; without federal programs, scientific research and development would be decades behind. The environment is not mentioned; without federal programs, there could be no effective protection of precious water and air resources. The list is endless.
The Constitution gives Congress, among other things, the power to collect taxes, provide for the “general welfare,” regulate interstate and international commerce and make all laws “necessary and proper” for executing all delegated powers.
The Supreme Court has interpreted these provisions in hundreds of cases, sometimes limiting their meanings but more often applying the “living document” philosophy. Using these delegated powers the government has done much to promote the general welfare: it abolished slavery; broke up ruthless monopolies; established Social Security and Medicare; protects the safety of food and drugs; regulates securities to protect investors; and ended legal segregation and discrimination, to cite only a few.
Not all federal programs have been wisely conceived or effectively implemented. But we should learn from mistakes, not invoke them to condemn progressive initiative.
Enlightened government action, advocated here, should be tempered and appropriate to the goal or societal issue. It does not extend to excessive intrusion into the private sector or stepping on rightful state government authority.
One inviolable government mandate is the protection of individual liberties. The Bill of Rights, augmented by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, protects those liberties against both federal and state action. Government’s role is to enforce liberty, not infringe upon it. But no right is unlimited. To pollute the environment or endanger employee safety in pursuit of profit, for example, is not a protected liberty.
Ideologically driven demands to shrink the size of government or forever prohibit tax increases in the face of demonstrable national needs are irresponsible. Those views are not founded in the Constitution. Government as a force for good is.
Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aide and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at email@example.com.