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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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What to Do About Eastern Europe

The nations of Eastern Europe finally have the opportunity to experience what Americans have long taken for granted: what it is to be free. Since the days when the Mongolian Khans ruled the region, the Slavic peoples have been oppressed. Unfortunately, due to this tradition of oppression, they are now at a loss as to how to democratize their former Communist governments and socialist economies that have so utterly failed them. We owe it to them, as their freedom loving brethren, to impart whatever knowledge we have garnered from our 215 years of experience in democracy. However, with this obligation comes a quandary: What should we share with them that would make their efforts more successful? Do we lead them towards the path of democratic "democratic big government," with its corollary risk of welfare statism? Or would the practices of the Reagan Administration, or "Reaganomics," perhaps be a better choice? If Eastern Europe's experiment with freedom is be long lasting, its governments must reject everything from the twentieth century of world (and more specifically, American) history. They must adopt the plan of action conceived of by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Founding Fathers advocated a limited government that was pledged to protect the liberty of its citizens. However, they never enacted the limited government to the extent that was necessary and fell prey to the seductive power that is inherent in any government. Thus, they rejected the only means to their end, total liberty. If the former Communists can create a truly limited government, there is the potentiality that they could surpass the industrialized nations in prosperity.

A limited government occurs when a government understands the proper role of the law in society and confines itself to that role. According to Bastiat, a French liberal during the 1848 socialist revolutions, "… the purpose of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning." In order to achieve that goal, the citizens relinquish their rights to the use of force to the government. However, the government can only utilize that force when a citizen's unalienable rights—life, liberty, and property—are being infringed upon by a foreign or domestic source. The government must not discriminate when it comes to applying justice; there can be no special protection nor undue persecution of any minority. To check this great power, the government is restricted by a written constitution that specifically delineates the powers and restrictions of the government. Since this constitution is a compact between the government and the people, if the people feel that the government is abusing its privilege of force or deviating from the constitution, that government can be declared illegal and the compact void. To summarize, a limited government is one that administers justice and protects its citizens from any harm or threat of harm. It does nothing more and nothing less. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, famed American transcendentalist, "That government is best which governs least."

The American tradition of liberalism permeates every era of American history to some extent. In the Colonial Era, Americans rallied against the auspices of tyranny under King George III and demanded their rights as Englishmen. They vehemently asserted their rights to self-government. In fact, a popular slogan, "No taxation without representation," affords a good demonstration of Colonial resentment of British rule. The Stamp Act Congress showed that the Americans were willing to unify against the outrageous Stamp Act. During the American Revolution, liberalism was at the forefront. The Declaration of Independence, the foundation upon which American government rests, states that "All men are created equal [and] endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights." This is congruent with the definition of limited government given earlier. This is exactly what the American Revolutionaries set up, albeit a severly limited one. The Articles of Confederation created an emasculated central government that was merely a figurehead in a confederation of sovereign states. It could not wage war, it could hardly pass laws, and it could not force any state to comply with its wishes. Luckily, the Founding Fathers of 1787 learned from their earlier mistakes. When they set out to create a new government at the Constitutional Convention, most of the delegates were firm believers in the ideas of the Enlightenment and had read the works of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. This created a general consensus which allowed the delegates to concentrate on the specifics without having to bicker about the basic concepts. The result was the greatest written constitution ever created. It defined three branches of government, each of which had separate and distinct powers. They established a system of checks and balances which prevented any one branch from becoming dominant. They also specified the powers of the federal government versus the powers of the state governments, another check. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution provides a list of eight powers which the federal government is forbidden to exercise. In the very next section, it defines what powers are denied to the states. Then, in 1791, the Bill of Rights were amended to the Constitution. They enumerate the basic civil liberties of American citizens upon which the government absolutely cannot tread and must secure at all costs. In addition, they made the whole government (federal and state) directly responsible to the people of the United States through frequent elections. As Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. President, once said, "the republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind."

The Founding Fathers had made it impossible for the government to trample on the people's civil liberties and escape unscathed. Or so they thought. The Republic continued, ideologically unabated, until the post-Civil War era. This was the time of the founding of the Departments of Interior and Agriculture and the enacting of the anti-trust legislation. These were the first of many Cabinet-level departments that were wholly without Constitutional support. If we go back to the views of the Founding Fathers at the time of the Constitutional Convention, we will find that these Departments are similarly unsupported and most probably condemned. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 signaled the end of America's ideal of constitutionally limited government, for its provisions gave the Department of Justice almost unchecked power in bringing lawsuits against any business it so chose. The Department of Justice could sentence that business to shut down, sell its subsidiaries, or divest of its subsidiaries, for business practices that may not have been illegal when they were committed. This is ex post facto law, which was specifically declared verboten in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. Thus began the downhill slide into welfare statism. The next step on this downward path was the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-relief plan, termed "The New Deal." President Roosevelt set up make-work programs, Social Security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and even pro-labor governmental organizations. These programs may have been necessary in light of the incredible government-caused Great Depression, but they should have immediately been repealed after the Depression was over. Instead, they remained and today are bigger than anything Franklin Roosevelt had envisioned. They were completely contrary to every ideal the Founding Fathers ever espoused. This trend of "big government" represented a total about face from the preference for "limited government" favored by the politicians of the early Republic. In fact, there is a remarkable similarity between the common complaints about America's government today and the grievances leveled by Thomas Jefferson at King George III. Of course, the scale of tyranny by King George III pales in comparison to that of the modern American welfare state.

How can the nations of Eastern Europe implement a limited government and benefit from our experience? The first step is to create a constitution that is modeled on the Constitution of the United States. Once they have done so, they must adhere to this supreme law of the land. A government is either absolutely committed to liberty or it is authoritarian; there is no middle ground. There is no such thing as "just a little infringement on civil liberties." Next, they must build a efficacious framework for the capitalist businesses. This means creating a pure gold standard, establishing standards of weights and measures, creating an institution to grant and uphold patents, copyrights, and trademarks, and providing highways for interstate transportation. It also implies that the government is dedicated to ensuring freedom of private property, contract, and competition. Once all this has been done, the only thing the government must do is mete out justice and maintain an otherwise laissez-faire attitude towards society. If the nations of Eastern Europe can achieve this—a remarkable achievement that has eluded all Western nations—there is no telling how much material and spiritual prosperity will result. They will have the world's only truly free people and, potentially, the most prosperous economy ever.

The philosopher Santayana once said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it." We must bear in mind Santayana's words, for America has not learned from her past. We are stuck in the quagmire of welfare statism with no freedom in sight. Therefore, we must instruct the intelligentsia of Eastern Europe in the ways of our elders with the hopes that one day we will be able to emulate them as they will have emulated us. Until that time comes, I will mourn for America.