Misguided Good People

Retiring Senator William Cohen (R. Maine) was interviewed by Washington, D.C.'s WAMU-radio's talk show host Diane Rehm. He talked about the changing political climate both in Congress and the nation.

Cohen lamented how American traditional skepticism toward Congress and politicians has turned into jaded cynicism "where there is a presumption of guilt or presumption of wrongdoing" adding "there is greater polarization in our country." Senator Cohen's reasoning for this was the "economic pie has been shrinking." Therefore, increased competition for thinner and thinner slices has led to increased incivility. Without a mention of Rush Limbaugh, he argued that incivility has been exacerbated by the provocative and inflammatory rhetoric of radio talk show hosts. Though Cohen agreed we ought to have a healthy debate on "how do we construct government that is of the right size," but it should take place in a context of "respecting one another's viewpoints."

Senator Cohen is probably a good person but like so many other good people in Congress, he has awesome power and little understanding. Let's analyze a few of his comments in his interview with Diane Rehm. First, we don't need a debate about the right size of government. It's already in our rules, namely, Article I, Section 8, of our Constitution. When the Constitution was first proposed, many Americans feared an all powerful central government like we have today. To assuage those fears, James Madison, writing in the Federalist Papers said, "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite." Senator Cohens' asking respect for the viewpoint calling for big, intrusive government is the same as my asking you to respect my viewpoint, if we were playing poker, that my two-pair beats your three-of-a-kind. The rules clearly say otherwise.

The Framers saw limited government as a necessary requirement for liberty and tranquillity. Government allocation of resources raises the potential for human conflict. Since government can't give what it doesn't first take, in order for government to be benevolent towards one another person it has to be malevolent towards another. About benevolent spending, James Madison said, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article in the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on object of benevolence, the money of their constituents." James Madison, an author of the Constitution couldn't find authority for spending on benevolence, but Senator Cohen and his colleagues can.

How much civility and respect are due those who exhibit contempt for the letter and spirit of our constitution? It's not just spending creating anger and resentment. Congress' civil forfeiture laws permit property confiscation, without due process, if drugs are found on it even if the owner had no knowledge or participation. In the name protecting wetlands and endangered species, Congress stops people from using their property and refuses to compensate them for the loss. Both are open violations of Fifth Amendment guarantees. Then there's government mandated race and sex discrimination, euphemistically called affirmative action, adding to resentment and polarization.

False claims about a shrinking economic pie has nothing to do with Senator Cohen's observations of growing incivility. Acts of Congress makes for a better explanation. If we continue along the road of increasing government usurpations, today's level of incivility will pale in comparison to tomorrow's. After all American people are basically no different than people in Lebanon, Ireland and Sri Lanka, and we have last century's bloody War Between the States to prove it.

Walter E. Williams
February 19, 1996
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