Flashback: When Presidents Respected the Constitution

“I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves.  I want them to have the rewards of their own industry.  That is the chief meaning of freedom.”

Those words are taken from Calvin Coolidge’s Inaugural Address of March 4, 1925.  Even then, conservatives like Coolidge were battling progressives over taxes and spending.  Today, with federal taxes approaching a 30-year high, those words are more relevant than ever.

The concept of limited government is the fundamental divide separating conservatives and liberals.  Conservatives hold dear the Constitution’s enumerated powers clause and the protections of property guaranteed by the Constitution’s Fourth and Fifth Amendments.  Liberals behave as if the Constitution did not exist.

Coolidge was never one to engage in empty rhetoric.  Even when forced to work with a Democratic Congress, he  followed up his pledge of “less for the government” by demanding tax reductions and spending restraint.  Coolidge sought not just to limit further growth of government but to restore it to what it had been before its expansion under Woodrow Wilson.  Both Coolidge and Warren Harding before him spoke of limited government as “normalcy.”  The expansion that had taken place under Wilson was an aberration.

Unfortunately, soon enough the aberration became the norm.  Since Coolidge left office in 1929, the size of government has exploded.  In Coolidge’s last year in office, federal spending was $3.7 billion.  For fiscal 2014, Obama requested $3.77 trillion, and he got most of what he asked for.  Federal spending for 2014 was approximately 1,000 times what it was in 1928, the last full year of the Coolidge presidency.  Even when adjusted for inflation, federal spending has grown more than 50 times since Coolidge.

The Coolidge administration was a model of good governance.  Coolidge’s first major actions upon assuming office were to cut taxes on both individuals and corporations and to begin paying down the national debt.  To a conservative who understood the concept of limited government and who supported it courageously, these actions were a necessary foundation for whatever else he would attempt.  From Congress he demanded “fewer bills.”  Today that approach would be called “obstructionism” or “gridlock.”

Informed by a lifetime of reading, thought, and experience, Coolidge viewed government as a necessary evil.  He seems to have reached this understanding very early in life.  Upon being elected president of the Massachusetts state senate, Coolidge urged his colleagues: “Don’t hurry to legislate.  Give administration a chance to catch up with legislation.”  “The people cannot look to legislation generally for success,” he reiterated.  “Don’t hesitate to be called a stand-patter.”  When he issued these sage admonitions, Coolidge was just forty-one.  He had already arrived at a mature conception of the benefits of limited government.  Not only that, but he was able to articulate this conception to a public that, for the past two decades, had known only progressivism.

Ronald Reagan emulated Coolidge’s conception of limited government.  He cut top rates from 70% to 28% and saw the U.S. economy prosper – not just throughout his two terms, but during those of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  George W. Bush began his presidency by passing two major tax reductions (in 2001 and 2003) that cut marginal rates for all taxpayers and lowered dividend and capital gains taxes to 15%.  These tax cuts led to 52 straight months of job growth – the longest in American history.  By 2007, the Bush tax cuts were saving an average family earning $40,000 over $2,000 in taxes.  Despite the growing power of progressives in politics and the media, George W. Bush managed to rein in the growth of government, at least up until the financial crisis of 2008.

Then came Obama, the most destructive and improvident president in our nation’s history.

This will come as news to radicals, but keeping the lion’s share of what one earns is a fundamental right.  That right has been trampled by Obama.  Counting estate taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, state income taxes, and a host of state and federal fees, the federal marginal rate of 44% raises marginal rates in some municipalities to over 90%.  Corporate taxes, which are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices and to investors in lower investment returns, add another layer of taxation.

But as Coolidge and Reagan understood, the consequences of Big Government involve more than taxes.  By confiscating earnings, government denies its citizens a host of freedoms.  In reality, every aspect of life is diminished when government seizes more than is necessary for its most basic functions.  Few presidents understood that as clearly as did Calvin Coolidge, and nowhere will one find a clearer explanation of limited powers than in his essay “A Free Republic.”  “The Constitution,” he wrote, “confers the authority for certain actions upon the President and the Congress, and explicitly prohibits them from taking other actions.  This is done to protect the rights and liberties of the people.”

Coolidge meant what he said.  Even when faced with unpopular decisions, such as vetoing the McNary-Haugen Bill for Agricultural Relief, he did not hesitate to act.  In his rationale for vetoing McNary-Haugen, Coolidge stressed the harm of government intrusion in the marketplace.  Government “assistance” would lead to price-fixing, corruption, profiteering, and other evils.  It would create an enormous bureaucracy.  And contrary to what defenders of the bill believed, the regulation of agricultural prices would constitute a tax upon the public.

A reading of Coolidge’s McNary-Haugen veto message of May 23, 1928, shows the extraordinary subtlety and political courage of this president.  One aspect of the bill to which Coolidge objected was the “equalization fee,” a producer’s fee to be levied and redistributed by an unelected board beyond the control of Congress.  Much like the current Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which operates outside the purview of Congress, the equalization fee would “involve an extraordinary relinquishment of the taxing power on the part of Congress.”  As Coolidge pointed out, “[t]he result would be a most dangerous nullification of one of the essential checks and balances which lie at the very foundation of our Government.”  In signing legislation that created the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, Obama established just such a dangerous nullification.

Those on the left – Wilson, FDR, Johnson, Carter, and Obama – have either not understood the repressive nature of taxation or chosen to ignore it.  They seem almost gleeful at the expansion of government power over citizens.  There is certainly nothing of the principled defense of the Constitution that one sees in Coolidge’s career.

If workers could retain more of what they earn, and if businesses could pay less in corporate tax, prosperity would return.  But more than just prosperity is at stake.  Along with a larger share of retained earnings, workers would recover the freedom to choose how their money is spent.  They would enjoy the freedom to work how and where they like, and for how long.  They would gain the freedom to raise their families as they wish, to support charities, engage in political activity, return to school and improve their skills, and retain what they earn from investments.  Ultimately, they would gain the freedom that the Founders envisioned: the “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Nothing less than that is at stake, and at risk, at the present time.  

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American politics and culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

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