Last week, I attended the reunion of my graduating class from a rural high school in northwest Indiana. Nearly half the 30 members of the class of 1964 attended, many having lived most of the intervening years within a few miles of the long abandoned school. I spent much of the afternoon talking to my classmates about what they have done since we last saw each other. Some of the conversations led to a claim employing the Hoosier grammar our English teachers tried to drum out of us: “The government don’t do nothin’ for me.” Instead, according to those classmates, the government taxes their hard-earned incomes to pay lazy people not to work, destroying the country in the process.
One of the classmates expressing this sentiment became a farmer immediately after graduation and sincerely believes he has made it on his own. I asked how he did during the disastrous drought of 2012. He said his yields that year were down about 60 percent, but he did fine because he received a crop insurance check making up for the lost revenue. I didn’t tell him that in 2012 the federal government paid more than 60 percent of his premium for that insurance.
Another member of my class related how he had recently spent weeks in the hospital with a life threatening heart condition. He bragged that the $250,000 undertaking had “not cost me a dime” because Medicare paid the bills. I am sure that the cost exceeded by many times the amount he paid into Medicare over his entire life. But government hasn’t done anything for him either.
Federal crop insurance and Medicare were the Obamacares of their days, vigorously opposed by conservatives claiming that they were a threat to the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution because they take money from those who have it and give it to those who need it. Today, those programs are taken for granted by the same people who see the federal government as a threat to their freedoms. For many, government action becomes a threat when someone else is the beneficiary. Ironically, one classmate who claimed the federal government does nothing for him cited the fact that government is not restricting the growth of large-scale corporate agriculture he sees as threatening his family farm. “Survival of the fittest” doesn’t sound so good when someone else is fitter.
My classmates are obviously not alone in believing their freedom would be greater if the federal government simply went away and left them alone. Grover Norquist, a crusader against federal spending, famously said, “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” That attitude is directly counter to that of the Founding Fathers, whose views self-professed conservatives purport to echo as they parade on government financed streets and parks waving “Don’t tread on me” flags and wearing tricorn hats. Our Founding Fathers, familiar with the writings of John Locke and other philosophers of the Enlightenment, understood that individual rights of the many can be destroyed by the power of the few in the absence of a central government capable of protecting those rights.
Recently, a scholar found what she believes is an extraneous period in the official transcript of the Declaration of Independence, improperly suggesting that the self-evident truths end with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. She argues that the original version, without the period, also recognized as a self-evident truth the need for government to secure those rights. Although the existence of the period can be debated, the fact that the Founding Fathers saw government as essential in securing individual freedoms cannot be. In view of the failures of the weak Articles of Confederation, the Constitution established a strong central government expressly to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Without a government capable of dealing with trespassers, the right to property is meaningless. Ask anyone in Somalia. Without a government capable of punishing murderers, the right to life is meaningless. Ask anyone in Iraq. Without a government capable of removing rockets from the hands of terrorists, the right to carry a semi-automatic rifle is meaningless. Ask anyone in Afghanistan. And without Medicare, the right to life for a retired person of limited resources with a defective heart is meaningless. Ask my classmate.
To fellow members of classes of 1964 everywhere, who witnessed the assassination of President Kennedy while we were seniors, “Ask not what your country is doing for someone you may not like; ask what it is doing for you.”
Donald E. Knebel is a partner in Barnes & Thornburg LLP, resident in the Indianapolis, Indiana office. He is a member of the firm’s Intellectual Property Law Department. Mr. Knebel serves as adjunct professor and senior advisor to the Center for Intellectual Property Research at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. He frequently posts his observations here at Civic Blog. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Barnes & Thornburg LLP or the IU Maurer School of Law. Image from Michael Rivera and made available through Wikimedia Commons.