Thomas Jefferson’s View of Government
By Rep. Robert Schaaf, M.D.
At the front of the House chamber in Jefferson City, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hangs in front of the republican side, and one of Thomas Jefferson hangs before the democrat side. This is appropriate, as republicans each year celebrate “Lincoln Days” and democrats celebrate “Thomas Jefferson Days” where each group meets to fire up its members. I have long felt inspired by the writings and speeches of Mr. Lincoln, the first republican president, but a recent email from a friend forced me to think about some things Mr. Jefferson wrote and said. As I did so, I noted that in some ways (but certainly not all), he would better epitomize republicans and probably much better epitomize libertarians!
The email quote by Jefferson was: “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.”
In this time of big bail-outs, the quote is especially prescient. Think of the banks and corporations involved, and the huge amount of money the government is spending. Is the Federal Reserve, which is certainly a quasi-governmental entity, private? I don’t know, but I do know that inflation itself does “deprive the people of all property” as Jefferson said. One labors for a paycheck, but inflation makes the money received worth less and less. I know enough economics to know that inflation occurs when there are too many dollars chasing goods and services—so will the bailout increase the dollars out there?
Thinking about this led me to look up some other Jefferson quotes. He said: “I sincerely believe that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies, and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”
Another appropriate quote given current events? Do the bailouts constitute “spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding? I think they do. While the bailouts were a bipartisan event, some of the things Jefferson advocated seem much more republican than democrat. Here are some examples:
“My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.” Republicans say they want smaller government, although to my dismay, they don’t fight for it nearly often enough. I am even disappointed with my own performance in this way because, in order to achieve some goals, I am forced, to stay in good graces with my caucus, to cast votes for many budget items I would rather not. The political process in place thus forces compromise, but perpetuates the status quo. I did redeem myself, though, when I led the effort to stop the illegal rollout of Insure Missouri, a huge expansion of health welfare that was never discussed by the legislature.
“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” and
“The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” Generally, republicans are fiercely protective of second amendment rights, while it is usually democrats who would restrict them.
“A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor and bread it has earned - this is the sum of good government.” Note he said government should leave men to regulate their own ‘improvement’. I interpret that he is directly attacking the redistribution of wealth that Obama was advocating when he used the words “spread the wealth around”.
Jefferson would never have condoned taking taxes from a working man and giving the money to one who would not work. He said “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” Note that he said ‘would not’, not ‘cannot’. Unlike libertarians, who would never condone any public welfare, republicans tolerate a limited welfare state with the idea that it is government’s place to help those who cannot help themselves. But even Jefferson would fight against giving free healthcare to an able-bodied person, unlike most democrats, whose party selected him as their symbol. Republicans are thus consistent with Jefferson, but he sounds more libertarian.
“To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” Consider abortion—by far the majority of legislators who would have Planned Parenthood receive funding are democrats. President Bush, by executive order, prohibited dollars from going to abortions oversees, but Obama has said he will rescind that order. Jefferson would also probably not condone Medicaid coverage of birth-control pills nor government funding of embryonic stem cell research, as many would abhor them as sinful.
I did find one quote by Jefferson with which I might disagree: “There is not a truth existing which I fear… or would wish unknown to the whole world.” If these are ‘truths”, I would not want the whole world to know how to make nuclear bombs nor how to grow anthrax. But I’m not sure if Jefferson would call these kinds of facts ‘truths’ and I would agree with him if not. On the other hand, I have noted that both parties seem to have some disagreements with Jefferson here; democrats seem to be the ones in opposition to allowing creation to be taught in school, while republicans seem to be the ones wanting to limit the amount of sex education taught in schools. I myself would like to see creation taught beside evolution, and full disclosure of the facts about sexually transmitted diseases.
It seems that on the federal level, both parties ignore Jefferson’s advice: “It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.” Missouri’s Constitution mandates a balanced budget, and Jefferson would want the federal government to have one, too. That would, however, be inconsistent with all the government programs democrats have created (but which republicans have also not taken steps to eliminate). As far as government debt, Jefferson was certainly libertarian.
So is Jefferson an appropriate symbol for the democrats? I don’t really think so, because very many of his positions run contrary to those of most democrats today. But then, republicans, by their inaction, do not measure up to his words either, a problem that has hurt the Republican Party.
One final quote by Thomas Jefferson: “Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.” So… since what you are reading right now is in a newspaper and is also not an advertisement, you will have to assess what you have just read in light of Jefferson’s wisdom and decide if he was right on this point!