Tibor R. Machan
For all its existence America has been torn between two political positions. Originally the two were represented, mostly, by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, although neither was a simple partisan of the positions at issue here.
Hamilton had been a supporter of the revolution but also quite sympathetic to big government, even to monarchy in the British style (not absolute but relatively limited). Jefferson, in contrast, supported the polity implied by the Declaration of Independence (which he largely authored), although he was no libertarian, not even like Thomas Paine who came quite close.
The two positions differ mainly on how much a country should entrust its ideals to government. The Founders general thought that once the king has been deposed, one could live with government comfortably enough, although Jefferson had uttered some sentiments that suggest he was beginning to find government altogether problematic. “That government is best that governs least” shows no enthusiasm for even limited government, the sort one associates with the classical liberal tradition, although the logical implications of the principles Jefferson included in the Declaration, mostly derived from John Locke, were pretty close to the libertarian minarchist theory, the kind of government that is committed to nothing more than the protection of the citizens’ basic rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness and whatever is consistent with these (mostly the right to do anything that’s peaceful). So this faction of America’s political legacy does not so much support a small as a limited scope type government. (Who can tell ahead of time how large an organization devoted to securing our rights would have to be to get its job done!?)
The second position, which one may fruitfully associate with Hamilton, is far more trusting of government, at least of the democratic or representative kind. In any case, this faction of the American political tradition eventually gave rise to the idea that government must be proactive, support various undertakings that the citizens may not take up themselves. So such institutions as banking would be nearly like they had been in Europe, if not state run than at least heavily supervised and regulated by the state. This is the approach that in time gave rise to central banking, the Federal Reserve Bank. It is also the approach that ended up more generally distrusting the capacity of the citizenry to address many of the problems that arise in a society. Education, for instance, would be entrusted to government, as would the protection of wildlife, to mention only two spheres that have become nearly completely a matter of public administration. And it is also this kind of political economic thinking that would in time lead to the invention of positive rights or entitlements, which is certainly not part of the Lockean view or follow the ideas of the Declaration. (BTW, the general welfare does not imply entitlements, only the need to protect all citizens’ rights to pursue their welfare individually or corporately.)
In our own time this divide has turned into something almost fundamental and more destructive, than even the one about preservation of the union. We now see many politicians and nearly the entire intellectual community--media editors, educators at all levels of school and especially in the social sciences and humanities (excepting economists)--siding with the view that government must have a large scope of influence and authority in the country, with only few features left to the private and personal sphere. Having been supplied with political ideas mainly from Europe for the last 150 years, the influence of the classical liberals began to abate a good deal. As in Europe, so in erudite America, most folks believe government must be a supplier of goods and services, not merely the protector of rights. As if they came to believe that referees at a game should become and more more involved in playing it rather than making sure the players obey the rules.
One matter needs to be kept in mind in order to find a silver lining in these developments. This is that the governmental habit which had been cultivated for centuries nearly everywhere, is difficult to break. But not impossible. In time it may just happen and right now there appears to be some hope on the horizon that many Americans are doing exactly that (though not as consistently as they should).