Americans abhor politicians who gather up inordinate powers. At least, that used to be the case. From our Revolution forward, Americans remained wary of any officeholder who tried to maneuver around constitutional limits. This was especially true if the trespasser happened to be a president.
Our apprehensions about an overly powerful executive go all the way back to the Founding. The constitutional framers feared a dominant executive because they knew concentrated power threatened liberty. The more authority an executive wielded, the more likely this single individual would dictate the daily activities of everyone else. Our culture’s innate fear of an overly powerful executive is healthy and has been the lynchpin that maintained our freedom for over two hundred years.
The Framers architected a government system comprised of multiple branches and multiple levels to protect against an unsafe accumulation of power. If more government is deemed necessary by the people, then those responsibilities were dispersed between the national branches or to state and local levels. Power was never to be concentrated in one place—and especially not in a single individual.
Unfortunately, this critical element of our heritage seems to have been diluted. Nowadays, many Americans embrace big government—and especially a big, powerful executive. Why are people unafraid of government, even enamored with government? Proponents of an ever-larger government have deftly deflected people’s fears toward corporations, religion, unseen contaminants, chauvinists, and even the weather. Government advocates are always bellowing that these are the real enemies, and only the government can protect people from abuse, emotional trauma, or worse.
Many people want more than protection from real or imagined foes. They want a benevolent executive to take care of them, right every wrong, and insure a fair distribution of necessities. The sad truth is that the only way to make sure everyone has shelter, food, health care, training or education, protection against disability or unemployment, and a risk-free retirement is to try to control the activity and possessions of all three hundred and twenty million people who inhabit our nation. Even if this starts well, it never ends well. One of the ways power corrupts is by inciting the accumulation of ever more power. The only way to stop this gravitational pull toward central power is to place hard limits on executive authority and arduously work to maintain those limits.
Advocates for limited government are often accused of wanting no government. It’s a straw man argument that in essence says we must keep every little piece of government or nothing at all. Limited government advocates do not want to eliminate all government, they only want to return government to its rightful place. This goes double for an overly powerful executive.
George Washington said, “The people are not yet sufficiently mislead to retract from error … Evils, which oftentimes in republican governments must be sorely felt before they can be removed.”
Has the angst of an overly powerful executive been sorely felt yet? Compared to just a few years ago, it’s startling how many people are aware of the erosion of constitutional limits and how it will harm the lives of our children and grandchildren. Everyone has not been convinced, however. There are still far too many people who staunchly believe that government is benevolent and can effect great change to make more and more people happy and comfortable in their chosen lifestyle.
Except, there’s a caveat. Sooner or later, big government always oppresses. In fact, any concentration of power oppresses, whether it’s government, theocracy, oligarchs, or global alliances. A tenet of our American culture is that we resist the determined accumulation of power. It’s part of our DNA. This skepticism of powermongers has served us well for several centuries.
Government is a huge game. Some believe the most important game on the planet. We the People set the rules for this game and we’re the referees. It’s time to blow the whistle. We also need to remind every American, and each generation that a key element of our heritage is dispersed and checked power. This important lesson comes directly from our ancestors and the Founders. We ignore it at our peril.