Among the chief advantages made possible by the United States Constitution was the opportunity to engage in trade and commerce on an unprecedented scale. The original 13 states on the eastern seaboard made a very large country with no tariffs between them, and entrepreneurs faced few political obstacles.
At least that was the vision of the Federalist Party, as it was too of the short-lived Whig Party and the present Republican Party. But many in the beginning were cool to commerce and extolled the virtues of the yeoman farmer, as did the Democrat Party until as late as the 1930s. But the suspicion of commerce continues to mark that party.
The family farm gone, the Democrats' hostility to commerce takes the form of professing to curb its excesses but actually stifling market-based wealth and encouraging influence-peddling with the federal government (General Motors, Chrysler, Solyndra, et cetera)
Indeed, the opportunity that a nation of 3.5 million square miles and more than 300 million people presents today is vast revenue to support the big government ideology that has defined the Democrat Party at least since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
For many Americans, this great and free land is still the land of opportunity, as it has been for immigrants and freed slaves. But for Democrats, this country is ripe for runaway federal spending on the belief that our prosperous nation can afford any program that an allegedly well-intentioned "progressive" dreams up.
When former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was asked if the federal government had the authority to manage health insurance, she famously replied: "Are you serious? Are you serious?" In Pelosi's mind there is no limit to federal authority, not only because of her exceedingly broad interpretation of Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce but her belief that money is not a problem. With a mandate on every insured person, surely funds will be available. After all, haven't they always been in the past?
Judging by the way the federal budget and accompanying national debt have grown since FDR's rather modest $3 billion outlay in 1933 to more than $3 trillion today, we have been spending for nearly 80 years like there was no tomorrow.
Congress's power to tax and spend for the common defense and general welfare is seen as the ultimate unlimited source for the New Deals, Fair Deals, New Frontiers, Great Societies, New Covenants and Hope and Change that Democrats dream up.
But there have always been, fortunately, countervailing pressures which have kept the federal government from completely stifling free commerce and trade. These are the Constitution, and inherent limits on taxing and spending.
In every generation that has seen attempts at vast expansion of the federal government, the political opposition invoked the framers' constitutional design for a government of limited powers. To the amazement of big government avatars, these arguments have resonated with millions of people, as in 1946 when Republicans won control of Congress, in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was first elected, in 1994 when Republicans took Congress, and in 2010 when Republicans retook the House and picked up more Senate seats.
When federal spending made a permanent home in the billions of dollars, it soon became apparent that taxing the "rich" would not yield the requisite funds, so income tax withholding was instituted on everyone who drew a paycheck. Amazingly, the top rate was 91 percent for incomes of $200,000 as late as 1963, when President Kennedy persuaded a Democrat Congress to lower the top rate to 70 percent as the wealthy were diverting their money into tax shelters or overseas investment.
Presidents Reagan succeeded in lowering the top rate to 50 percent and later 28 percent, and after President Clinton won an increase to 39 percent his successor, George W. Bush, helped bring it back down to 35 percent.
The level of spending for big government has its own shock value. I remember when Lyndon Johnson proposed a budget just under $100 billon in the 1960s in order to cushion the blow, or when the budget reached $500 billion in Jimmy Carter's administration. Now we are cursed with annual budget deficits far exceeding even that amount.
Each time we return to our constitutional roots, or take a hard look at the levels of taxing and spending, we Americans, unlike our European brethren, react like a self-governing people should by putting on the brakes. We will do that again next year and, I hope, this time that we will reverse course.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.