Were the Founders Democrats?

Normally we wouldn’t bother to critique an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, but this one by political reporter Dane Smith, which implicitly addresses the current budget standoffs in both Washington and Minnesota, is perhaps worth a brief review.

Smith’s theme is that today’s conservatives, especially those associated with the Tea Party, are like the anti-federalists who opposed the creation of the United States. Federalist heroes, notably George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, anticipated today’s Democrats because they stood for a powerful government and high taxes. In the course of making his argument, Smith takes the hoary rhetorical device of the straw man to seldom-plumbed depths:

The more farsighted American founders wanted the strong, effective and united national government we ended up with, and the broad new taxing powers that made it possible.

“Broad new taxing powers”? Well, sort of. But the Constitution specifically prohibited the individual income tax, so Alexander Hamilton wasn’t exactly a political clone of Mark Dayton or Barack Obama.

To create our U.S.A., these framers — known as Federalists — had to defeat opponents who were called anti-Federalists, and who essentially were saying no to new taxes and to bigger government when they tried to block ratification of the Constitution that has endured now for 223 years.

Come to think of it, anti-Federalist may actually be a more accurate historical label than “Tea Party” for the insurgents who are on the rampage once again, defaming our good governments, proposing to shrink them beyond recognition and promoting a self-centered individualist “liberty” as the only important principle, with scant regard for the complementary values of equality, justice and community.

So those “rampaging” Tea Party members are opposed to the existence of the United States of America? Really? Really? Is that why they carry American flags and read from the Constitution? And if being opposed to the existence of the USA isn’t what the “more accurate historical label” “anti-Federalist” means, then what does it mean?

Often condemned as elitist, big-spending aristocrats, Hamilton and Washington wanted to create an ample national public treasury to support a bigger, stronger commonwealth that would be able to defend itself and pay for its wars (which we are failing to do now), borrow money and pay its debts, build interstate canals and roads, provide otherwise for the “General Welfare,” and in the process promote both business interests and the common good.

The question that is always begged by liberals like Dane Smith is, how much is enough? Did Washington and Hamilton’s vision of an “ample” public treasury extend to $3.8 trillion budgets and $1 trillion deficits? Does Smith think they would approve of President Obama’s FY 2012 budget, which proposed to increase our national debt by over $7 trillion, even assuming that every one of its optimistic economic assumptions came true (none of them has so far)? And does Smith seriously expect to convince anyone that being concerned about the federal government’s spiraling spending and debt is equal to being an “anti-Federalist” opponent of the United States?

One side note: why are liberals addicted to complaints about our “fail[ure] to pay for” wars? The truth is that the Democratic Congress and the Obama administration are failing to pay for everything (or, more accurately, paying for at least part of pretty much everything with borrowed money). Why don’t liberals ever complain that we are failing to pay for the Environmental Protection Agency, or Medicare?

Smith continues:

[I]t’s also fair to ask whether some of the current Tea Party’s rhetoric, with its claimed roots in America’s founding ideals, might threaten the continued health and strength of our commonwealth and the prospect of the United States remaining the strong, fair and prosperous nation that Hamilton evisioned.

Grover Norquist, founder of the arch-conservative Club for Growth and the national genius behind the “no new taxes” mania, has publicly stated that his long-term goal is to cut the size of our government in half, and then in half again by the middle of this century.

Grover Norquist did not found the Club for Growth and, to the best of my knowledge, has nothing to do with it. Norquist may or may not be a genius, but the idea that he is somehow “behind” the “mania” of opposition to increased taxes is ridiculous. As for Norquist’s goal of reducing federal spending by three-quarters, that would take the budget back to where it was in the early 1970s. If Smith has evidence that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton would have preferred the federal budget of 2011 over that of 1973, it would be interesting to see it.

New heroes on the libertarian right, such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, openly acknowledge that they have been heavily influenced by Ayn Rand. This novelist and self-styled philosopher is the modern spiritual mother of an antigovernment extremism that sees no role for government beyond police departments and armies.

She dismissed democracy as mob rule and favored the dollar sign as a symbol of her movement, rejecting traditional American values and symbols.

But wait! Paul Ryan has actually proposed a federal budget; not only that, it was adopted by the United States House of Representatives! So is the House an “anti-Federalist” body? And did Ryan’s budget eliminate funding for every federal agency except the Department of Defense? That straw man is getting a little weary.

We could go on, but you get the picture. It would be easy to demonstrate from the speeches and writings of Washington, Hamilton and the other Federalists that their views were much closer to those of present-day conservatives, most especially including Tea Party members, than to those of present-day liberals like Dane Smith. One could write a PhD dissertation on the subject–someone probably has–but let’s just close with a couple of quick quotes. This one is from Federalist 45:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments in times of peace and security. As the former periods will probably bear a small proportion to the latter, the State governments will here enjoy another advantage over the federal government. The more adequate, indeed, the federal powers may be rendered to the national defense, the less frequent will be those scenes of danger which might favor their ascendancy over the governments of the particular States.

If the new Constitution be examined with accuracy and candor, it will be found that the change which it proposes consists much less in the addition of NEW POWERS to the Union than in the invigoration of its ORIGINAL POWERS.

And, in Federalist 21, Hamilton anticipates the Laffer Curve:

It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption that they contain in their own nature a security against excess. They prescribe their own limit, which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed — that is, an extension of the revenue. When applied to this object, the saying is as just as it is witty that, “in political arithmetic, two and two do not always make four.” If duties are too high, they lessen the consumption; the collection is eluded; and the product to the treasury is not so great as when they are confined within proper and moderate bounds.