Hopes, fears and expectations abound as we all prepare for the dawning of the Trump administration. We want him to repeal this law or sign that one; to fund this group and defund another; to appoint this kind of judge and never the other kind.
My own fondest hope for President-elect Trump is more general in nature. It hearkens back to the Revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine and his admonition for Americans to begin government at the “right end” – to begin with a proper charter for government and then select men to administer it.
My hope is that President-elect Trump will begin policymaking at the right end – by viewing it first and foremost through the lens of the distinctly American view of the purpose of government, and only then to consider its practical merits.
Sadly, few citizens spend much time considering the question, “What is the purpose of government?” Even for those who do, the inquiry is usually mistaken as a matter for vague, philosophical musing, as opposed to a concrete question with a concrete answer. Uninformed by history, the musings typically end in error.
In response to a 2015 Gallup poll, not only a majority of Democrats, but nearly one-third of Independents and 15 percent of Republicans expressed their belief that “government should take steps in every area it can to try to improve the lives of its citizens.” While some respondents indicated their preference for a government that does “only those things necessary to provide the most basic government functions,” those “functions” were not defined, and it’s doubtful the respondents would have agreed on what they are.
But the question, “What is the purpose of government?” is one that does have a definite answer in America. In fact, it was the founders’ audacity to ask and answer that question decisively – to begin government at the right end – which fueled the very Revolution that birthed our nation.
Their answer is found in the Declaration of Independence, which acknowledges that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights – among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and then posits that it is to secure those rights that governments are instituted among men.
In other words, the animating conviction of America is that the purpose of government is to provide a safe haven for human life and human liberty, that its citizens will enjoy the greatest possible extent of freedom to pursue true happiness through virtue and industry.
Of course, the Declaration speaks in broad terms; we know that the Constitution further restricts the federal government to a prescribed list of powers, reserving the lion’s share to the states. That prescription has been virtually ignored for decades now, leading to an overdose of power at the federal level that could ultimately prove terminal to our constitutional system. And this is a threat that must be addressed.
But until such time as the disease can be addressed systemically, the single best thing President-elect Trump can do to make America great again is to begin his policymaking at the right end. He must measure every law and policy proposal first against the distinctly American understanding of the purpose of government, and only then against the fiscal studies, empirical data, polling results and expert advice. Experts and academics will tempt the new administration with an array of appealing, innovative ideas. And yet, when viewed through that potent lens of government purpose, many of them will expose themselves as un-American policies – and sometimes, even unconstitutional ones.
Our Founding Fathers risked all and lost much to do the hard work of beginning government at the right end. Over time and by degree, through loss of focus, lack of restraint, loyalty to factions or love of adulation, our government has traded our birthright of liberty for a bowl of socialistic mush. While many assent to President Ronald Reagan’s assessment that “as government expands, liberty contracts,” few demonstrate the fortitude to actually restrain government and unleash liberty.
I pray that our new president will have this fortitude. I pray that he will restore America’s greatness by restoring her integrity, fostering an American government that knows its limited purpose and shuns all pretense of competence at any other.