On March 9, 1776 the first of two earth-shaking documents on liberty were published. Of course we all know (with the exception of some of you who spent your youth in government schools) which document was published on July 4th of that year. Not as well known was the book by a Scottish professor of moral philosophy entitled, "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations". This book by Adam Smith laid the groundwork for economic liberty all over the world. If you have ever eaten food, enjoyed shelter from inclimate weather or been able to avoid being naked in public you are the direct beneficiary of the infrastructure that was put in place by Mr. Smith when he argued that self-interested behavior, when pursued within the context of our "natural liberties" leads to society gaining goods and services far more quickly and effectively than when government planners set out to do the same thing.
Which brings me to my favorite economics movie - and a modern day hero in the world Adam Smith envisioned.A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to watch The Pursuit of Happyness with my teenage daughter. If you have not yet seen this film it is ostensibly about a man who attempts – over and over again – to overcome economic obstacles as he pursues his version of happiness. The lead character in the movie (played brilliantly by Will Smith), even mentions Thomas Jefferson and our constitutional right to pursue happiness.About half way through the film my daughter leaned over and whispered, “So daddy, do you still think the government shouldn’t help people like him?”
This was an extremely profound question inasmuch as my daughter has heard me in and out of the classroom discussing the economics, morality and Constitutionality of using tax dollars in the name of benevolence.John F. Kennedy once said, “I do not believe that Washington should do for the people what they can do for themselves through local and private effort.” As it turns out, JFK’s opinion is actually an important Constitutional fact, as well. If one takes a look at Article One, Section Eight, Clause One of our nations’ rulebook we can see that the Founders allow Congress to spend tax dollars on national defense, debts incurred in the protection of our rights and on expenditures for the ‘general welfare’ of our nation. Clauses 2-18 then enunciate what general welfare means. Any reading of the works of Messrs. Madison, Jefferson, etc. clearly indicates that the use of tax dollars to financially prop up any individual member of our society is prohibited.
The Founders felt that private initiative, family and charity – both secular and religious – were better tools to drive people out of poverty and into more productive, and ultimately more profitable pursuits.But what about people who are really trying to follow Adam Smith's lead but continue to bump up against the random walk of life that often knocks them down over and over again? Would it hurt anything if the arm of government, financed with the tax dollars of others, reached out just to those people with temporary aid?
This question came to my mind over and over again during this movie and I found myself slightly bending towards the more socialistic conclusion that a proper function of government is to help those who are really trying to help themselves. After all, even JFK yielded to the movement to create a social welfare state.Yet, by the time the movie had ended and I was walking in the parking lot with my daughter I was able to tell her that not only were the Founders still correct, but that the man depicted in that film had proven that without any government assistance people can triumph over enumerable odds. In fact, the astute observer cannot miss the fact that government turned out to be his largest enemy. The big issue to consider is this:If government could identify those who are trying (a monumental task), would those people keep trying once taxpayer aid arrived? Franklin Roosevelt once called welfare the “subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”
Not only has he been proven to be correct (and he was the first to sign off on welfare), but we are now faced with a growing perception by the elderly, the baby boomers, people facing foreclosure, GM, the banks and virtually every supporter of our new president that government should always assist us first before we dig down and find the fortitude to assist ourselves.As it turns out, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson and Chris Gardner had the right idea. If we can just get our fellow Americans to realize that the more government assumes our responsibilities the more power government gains to take away our liberty and private property, then we will be one day closer to turning the corner on this current walk towards socialism.