In 1886 a terrible drought turned the plains of Texas to a vast expanse of dust. The United States Congress responded by appropriating $10,000 for seed for Texas farmers, who were in dire straits. This proposal was not folded into some enormous all-or-nothing bill, but was its own thing, to be voted for or against, on its merits.
Congress sent the bill to President Grover Cleveland. On February 16, 1887, Cleveland vetoed it. He acknowledged the suffering. “It is represented,” he wrote in his veto, “that a long-continued and extensive drought has existed in certain portions of the State of Texas, resulting in a failure of crops and consequent distress and destitution. Though there has been some difference in statements concerning the extent of the people’s needs in the localities thus affected, there seems to be no doubt that there has existed a condition calling for relief; and I am willing to believe that, notwithstanding the aid already furnished, a donation of seed grain to the farmers located in this region, to enable them to put in new crops, would serve to avert a continuance or return of an unfortunate blight.”
So the distress was real, the bill was narrowly crafted, and the plan would work. Why on earth then did he veto it?
To answer that question, we might look to our own day, and the extraordinarily difficult, even quixotic attempt by a few congressmen to de-fund Planned Predators.
This situation would have struck our founders, even the centralizing James Madison and the high-financier Alexander Hamilton, dumb with astonishment. In The Federalist 58, James Madison writes that the larger states, predominating in the House of Representatives, will not necessarily have to cede their power to a combination of smaller states, with their equal representation in the Senate. “The House of Representatives,” he says, “cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose the supplies necessary for the support of government. They, in a word, hold the purse” (emphasis mine). They are, as it were, the head of household who alone may propose how much is to be spent and how. “This power over the purse,” he continues, “may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”
Notice what Madison implies. The history of the English House of Commons, he says, shows that the power to appropriate funds or to refrain from appropriating them provides a check against “all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of the government.” Madison expects that the power of the purse will often have to be used to redress grievances, not through spending, but through withholding. For the other branches cannot grow to harmful and freedom-destroying excess, if their sustenance is controlled at the root.
In Federalist 78, Hamilton seeks to allay fears that the judiciary, for its part, will be without any check on its power. Like Madison, he refers to the power of the purse, vested in the legislature alone. “The judiciary, on the contrary,” says he, “has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society, and can take no active resolution whatsoever.” The judges could not mandate spending – they did not hold the purse – nor could they threaten persons or municipalities or states with financial ruin should they not comply with their decisions – they did not hold the sword.
But that was a long time ago. We are now threatened with what is called a “government shutdown,” should the House of Representatives dare to withhold public money from what even its supporters must see has been a flagrantly dishonest operation. How has it come to this? How can a racket like Planned Predators hold a hammer over the heads of the people’s own representatives?
In the days of President Cleveland, the national government “shut down,” we might say, whenever the lawmakers went back home to tend to their personal and family business. That was where they belonged, and not in the national capital. The army would still be paid, and the merchant marine, and the postmen. Meanwhile, the people would enjoy a blessed rest from national ferment and disruption. Their homes, neighborhoods, churches, local schools, businesses, and municipalities were not under constant supervision, or constant siege.
But now, a “shutdown” means that trillions of dollars may be delayed in getting to road crews, teachers, bureaucrats, social workers, doctors, unwed mothers, ticketers at national parks, pensioners, soldiers, guards at airports, public schools, food inspectors, businessmen suckling at the national teat – there is no end to it. Everyone is bound. If a man holds a gun to your child’s head, what difference does it make if on paper you hold the strings to the purse? The funds are not appropriations, but protection money, or ransom.
Grover Cleveland seems to have anticipated the problem. He acknowledges the “benevolent and charitable” impulse behind the bill. But, he says, “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”
The government should not support the people. If a politician should utter those words now, it would spell the end of his career. What is a government for, if not to support the people?
Let us not be misled by the verb. Cleveland does not mean that the government should neglect measures to promote the common good. He means that the people should retain a right relationship to the government. Just as a head of household supports his wife and children, so should the people as a whole support the government; the government should be dependent upon the people. A government so conceived is the creature, the tool, the servant of the people, and the people are its master. If some portion of the government grows wayward or arrogant, the heads of household, through their representatives in Congress, may withhold its allowance, or bring a curfew down upon its head.
If in a republic the government fears the people, in a tyranny the people fear the government. And in America we do indeed fear the government, not simply because, as Jefferson said, the power to tax is the power to destroy. We have reversed the relationship that Cleveland – giving up an opportunity to be a political hero – urged us to maintain. We have allowed the government to support us, and have paid dearly for that support, in money and in real political power. We complain that our representatives do not do as we bid them, but we should recognize the difficulty. Our representatives are almost powerless. They do not pass laws that are succinct and clear and easy to obey. They have legislated into existence a vast system of bureaucracies, leaving all of the messy details of governance to many thousands of unelected and therefore unrepresentative and unappealable officials.
These officials hold the hammer, and they know it. No one can stand up in the Senate, like Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra’s wonderful film, to protest a specific bill narrowly crafted to send a specific amount of money to Planned Predators. The landlord is not the Congress. The landlord is the Department of Health and Human Services, stocked with people friendly to Planned Predators. The easy task of merely refraining from giving the people’s money to a criminal outfit has become the tremendously difficult task of passing legislation forbidding it. But in the Protection Racket of America, the party that wants the money reacts with laughter and contempt.
“Eh, hillbillies,” says the Protector in Chief, “you’d better wise up, and not cause my pal Joey any trouble.” And since the people have now become clients, or wards, or political orphans, the threats are real and immediate.
There is an additional danger, one that is hard now to see, because you must notice a good thing that is missing, instead of a bad thing all too near. When children are in trouble, they turn to their parents for help. Even if they were physically as strong as their parents, they do not yet have the spiritual resources to turn to one another. But where the structure of government has made the people into clients, or favorites buying plenty of protection, or dependent children, do not expect such people to see to their neighbor’s troubles.
“The friendliness and charity of our countrymen,” wrote President Cleveland, “can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.”
The result, by the way, was that Americans from all over the country came to the assistance of their countrymen in Texas, providing far more seed and other forms of help than the government had sought to send.
Of course I’m not saying that all welfare programs in America should end tomorrow. It has taken a hundred years to turn Americans from masters of government to its servants. It would take longer for us to reclaim our rule, even if a sufficient number of us had the will to do so. Whole societies devoted to education, to charity, to the extension of credit, to community life, would have to be founded all over again. I am here describing a state of affairs. Those strings are not on the purse. They are on us.