Who's to Blame?

By Richman, Sheldon | Ideas on Liberty, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Who's to Blame?


Richman, Sheldon, Ideas on Liberty


Advocates of liberty are frequently confronted with the following fallback position of their intellectual adversaries: We live in a representative democracy. If you don't like what is taking place, your beef is with the people who have freely chosen their representatives.

That argument is intended to blunt criticism of activist government. If the people have freely chosen it, who are you to complain?

There are several problems with that argument. First, the United States was supposed to be a constitutional republic, not a democracy. A constitution is intended to limit the people's power to use the government to achieve their ends. As the framers saw it, the delegation of enumerated powers to the Congress means that, barring amendment, that's all the Congress can do-no matter how badly "the people" want something else done. Unfortunately, the delegated powers have been stretched beyond recognition to permit Congress to define its own powers.

Appealing to the representative nature of the government has further problems. If those representatives and the bureaucrats they empower deliberately shroud their activities so that citizens find it virtually impossible to monitor the government, how representative is it really? Someone of statist mindset might invoke the division of labor: Citizens, the argument might go, delegate decision-making power to specialists in public policy by electing the president and members of the legislature. That's what the civics textbooks say, at any rate. But the real world doesn't quite conform.

The latest evidence comes in a startling confession by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In June Moynihan wrote about Social Security in the New York Times. To provide some context, he turned back to 1977, when Congress changed the method for financing the program. "In 1977," he wrote, "Social Security, the retirement program, was changed from a pay-as-you-go system to a partially funded system." To accomplish this the government hiked the payroll tax two points. Now instead of having only the amount required to pay the retirees, the system had a surplus with which to build a reserve fund. It wasn't a real reserve fund, because the government spent the money. But Social Security got IOU's, which someday the government will pay-by raising taxes or borrowing.

What's relevant about that legislative history is this comment from Moynihan: "No one noticed this [change]. I was a member of the 1977 House-Senate Conference Committee that enacted the law, and I surely didn't notice. Nor was it reported."

Bear in mind that Moynihan is considered one of the most intelligent and conscientious members of Congress. (He's George Will's favorite senator.) But he didn't notice the change! …

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