MONTANA, United States. – According to a nationwide survey commissioned by Columbia Law School in 2002, almost two-thirds of Americans thought that Karl Marx’s maxim “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was written by the Framers and included in the U.S. Constitution.
Never mind that the maxim could not possibly have been in the Constitution since it was popularized by Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program–some 87 years after the 1788 ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Put aside how troubling this ignorance is, and the difficulties that it signifies for democratic governance. Discount what this illiteracy says about our educational system, and consider only what it asserts about the role of government in our society, and how it creates unworkable expectations that become entitlements.
For a government to undertake “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” that government must have near-totalitarian powers to transfer wealth to groups that the government decides are entitled to such a transfer. It would be a government with the authority to engineer society to its liking.
However, our central government was carefully designed to restrict the discretion of those in power.
James Madison, the mastermind of the U.S. Constitution, succinctly explained why in Federalist 10: “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Consequently, the Founding Fathers crafted a brilliant Constitution that does not say much on what government must do; it emphasizes what government may not do.
Currently, much of what government does is of questionable constitutional warrant, and much of what government seeks to do, it does not know how to do. In his second inaugural address Ronald Reagan reminded us: “Our system has never failed us, but for a time, we failed the system. We asked things of government that government was not equipped to do.” It seems we are still asking such things.
As made clear in the Declaration of Independence, governments are instituted to protect our liberty, and our liberties are always necessarily restricted by government. Thus, the Founders understood liberty mostly as freedom from government.
To the disappointment of those that think that Karl Marx’s maxim is in our Constitution, it is not in our constitution for government to engage in wealth redistribution. An open and democratic society is one in which people are equally free to become economically unequal as a result of our unequal natural distribution of aptitude and abilities. Even more basic, as economist John Cochrane points out: “Rich people mostly give away or reinvest their wealth. It’s hard to see just how this is a problem…”
Social scientists now recognize that radically different socioeconomic systems result in different kinds of people. The virtues promoted by our Constitution—the virtues of freedom—include industriousness, and assuming responsibility for our wellbeing. These are virtues essential to a culture of freedom. A capitalist society makes us better off, but more importantly, it makes us better. The thought of getting by without working is not virtuous.
In Federalist 51, Madison called for government to have a “dependence on the people.” Unfortunately, our society has acquired a culture of big government and self-indulgence that fosters a different kind of dependence. Today, our culture is not one of a government dependent on the people, but rather a culture of people dependent on the government. This is a troubling ethos that dilutes individualism. Democracy requires our individual informed competence.
No, Marx’s creed urging for a government redistribution of wealth is nowhere in our Constitution. It was, however, in Stalin’s Soviet Constitution. Our founding philosophy, regarding the role of government, was beautifully articulated by Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address: “Wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”
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