Bryan Griffin: Lines And Where To Draw Them

Feb 6, 2019

Within the last two weeks, three Democrats in Congress have suggested tax rates on the wealthy as high as 70, 77 and even 90 percent.

The current American tax rate for the highest earners is 37 percent.

Are we still having a conversation about where we draw the line?

Is a line even being drawn anymore?

What limitations are we putting on the political decisions we are making as a country?

Consider another timely topic in the news. The abortion debate.

New York passed a law guaranteeing abortions more broadly to its citizens. Then Virginia debates a bill that would allow abortions up to the point of childbirth. Embattled Virginia Governor Ralph Northam later made commentary implying that a child could be terminated after it was delivered.

I find that notion horrific, but today’s commentary is not on the merits of taxes, or abortion.

I hope today to make a point that nearly everyone can agree with.

Are we still as a society willing to draw a line on issues, to prevent policymakers from moving the goal eternally? I’ll ask it again: are we even having this discussion?

If one were to read the Constitution of the United States of America, one would notice that most of the text deals with limiting the power of government, instead of granting it. The American system is founded on a system of limited government. When America sought its independence, it was not only from England, but from the old-world mindset that the right to govern is owned by a select or elite few—the kings, monarch, and despots. Our Declaration of Independence stated it plainly: people are free by birth and choose how to govern themselves. Thus the founding of our Republic required a document to carefully state the permissible actions of government. And even when the Constitution was ratified, the very next action of the founding fathers was to further limit the government to protect our freedoms. The Bill of Rights—the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution—all dealt with the aspects of our lives that the government could not infringe upon.

The success of the American system is because of the limitations of our government.

See, the worst experiments in governance in human history – the most egregious state actors – all had one terrible thing in common: there was no limit to what those at the top of the government could do or enact upon the citizens of the state.

America works because America’s creators knew where to draw lines.

With that truth in mind, are we still to this day considering where we need to draw lines when it comes to the proposals of those with power over us?

In conservative circles, I do believe the conversations still occur. Conservatives almost make a caricature of ourselves continually discussing where government should have its limits, and when it should back out of our lives. The political left – elected Democrats — don’t seem to have this concern when suggesting policy proposals. At times, it can seem like the difference is heartlessness. Why wouldn’t conservatives want healthcare for all, or a universal income? But the fundamental question a conservative asks is not what can we prohibit others from having, but what’s the worst that can be done to all of us?

Giving the government the size, resources, and means to become our caretakers also means giving them the power to make decisions about us. Bad decisions. Like which citizens have more value, who gets to say what or be what, or at its extreme, who gets to live and die. These are the haunting thoughts that trouble a conservative, instilled in no small part by the worst of what is seen throughout human history.

Historically, humanity has had an appetite for human rights abuses because they have been implemented incrementally. Hayek put it best in his 1944 analysis of how Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia got away with what they did. Through whatever intentions, those in power were incrementally able to delegitimize, dehumanize, and then demonize.

I’d like to say such macabre possibilities are merely hypothetical, but history has shown how quickly society can devolve. Just look at the current state of affairs in Venezuela. It didn’t start that bad, it got that bad. Step by step.

China just implemented a “social credit system” for its citizens. This means the government is codifying the way it makes value assessments on the Chinese people based on a point system made by the elite. The international community should be railing against this. Not only is it Big Brotherism, it's a gross violation of human rights.

This isn’t alarmism. In fact, we would be foolish not to heed the lessons of history. Step by step, absolute power corrupts absolutely. When you maximize government you inevitably limit freedom. A line has to be drawn.

We can debate where we draw the line in any number of issues, but a line must be drawn. The left and the right can have different opinions on just how much the government should provide, or just how much the government should take in taxes, or exactly when a fetus is viable. But both sides must first mutually agree on an immovable stopping point. Government has a role, but that role must be limited. Are we still having that discussion?

Bryan Griffin of the London Center for Policy Research is a lawyer and author who specializes in american policy in the middle east.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.