Do you understand quantum physics? I didn’t think so! There are few physicists who claim to fully understand it, and there is still much disagreement among them about some core aspects of quantum physics. Nevertheless, much of it is proving to be very useful, and the ongoing effort to create quantum computers is becoming a practical reality and is likely to be highly beneficial in future years. The fact that most of us do not understand quantum physics is not important for our day-to-day lives.
Yet, there are other fields of knowledge where it is very important for everyone to have a working ability, such as reading, writing, and basic mathematics. It also takes an educated populace to have functioning self-governance – a democratic republic or direct democracy – as contrasted with a monarchy or various forms of dictatorship. At the time of the American founding, a large portion of the population was not only literate but familiar with the history of Western civilization from the time of the ancient Greeks to ideas of the Enlightenment. Even those who had not read John Locke, Issac Newton, David Hume, Adam Smith, and even America’s own Ben Franklin directly were exposed to their ideas in endless discussions in the pubs and coffee shops at the time (there was no TV, radio, movies, and the dribbles on the Internet to waste their brains).
The debates around the creation of the American Constitution were a distillation of 2500 years of thought and experiences about political philosophy and governance. What is striking is how few Americans now understand the basic concepts behind the U.S. governmental system, and how and why they developed.
At the moment, there is considerable discussion about President Joe Biden’s proposed debt “forgiveness” for a subset of recipients of student loans. However, despite all of the debate, the basic issue has received little attention – which is “not yours to give.” The famed American icon Davy Crockett, during his time as a member of Congress, gave a speech on the floor of Congress in 1828, dealing with the fundamental issue of taxpayers being forced to pay for private charity, no matter how well-meaning. The speech and commentary about it were originally published in Harper’s Magazine in 1867, written by Edward S. Ellis, from which the following quote was taken. (The entire article plus at least one video is readily available on the Internet by googling “Davy Crockett and not yours to give.”)
“One day in the House of Representatives, a bill was taken up appropriating money for the benefit of a widow of a distinguished naval officer. Several beautiful speeches had been made in its support. The Speaker was just about to put the question when Mr. Crockett arose: ‘Mr. Speaker – I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the sufferings of the living, if suffering there be, as any man in this House, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or sympathy for a part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress, we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money.’”
It was expected that the bill would pass unanimously; but after that speech, the bill received few votes and was defeated. During the debate, Crockett gave a much fuller explanation of the “not yours to give” issue, which is very timely at the moment.
Few in the political realm, including the members of the media, discuss the fundamental issue both from a legal and moral basis of the right of Congress to coerce taxpayers to pay others for their own misfortunes or follies. Albeit there is a long tradition of vote buying at all levels of government in the U.S. and most every other country, at some point, what might be viewed as small theft becomes so great as to undermine and eventually destroy the system. H. L. Mencken once wrote: “Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.”
Under Mr. Biden, vote buying has grown from tens of billions to hundreds of billions of dollars – almost without limit. The explicit federal debt (not including unfunded liabilities like social security, etc.) is now well over 100% of GDP. Most of the debt has arisen, not only from sloppy spending by Congress, often on worthless projects without prudent financial controls, but from endless income transfer schemes so poorly designed and administered that they not only rape some taxpayers to benefit the politically favored, whereas eventually everyone will feel financially violated when the till is empty.
Among the knowledgeable, the debate is no longer, “will the dollar and other major currencies lose most of the value,” but how soon the downward spiral will begin (or has it?) At the point when most people associate Davy Crockett with “not yours to give,” rather than “remember the Alamo,” the war on fiscal irresponsibility might be winnable.
• Richard W. Rahn is chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and MCon LLC.