The United States government has limited powers outlined in the US Constitution. National policies that are based upon the US Constitution will focus primarily on protecting our boarders and regulating interstate commerce; but many times the federal government will reach far beyond its constitutional role when pursuing policies for the common good. For example, efforts to define a national policy to increase renewable energy usage is not an appropriate role for the federal government though it may serve the common good. The US Constitution does not refer to this type of policy control as a power granted at the federal level.
There is a tendency for governments to seek ways to exercise authority beyond powers given it by the people, and they justify this overreach by pursuing policies for the common good. A common theme in American history reflected in the US Constitution is that the common good is best served when individual liberty is preserved. An historical account of the struggles of early Americans and the accounts of a famous foreign observer provide examples of how protecting individual liberty is more important than forcing policies upon the masses for the common good.
There is one famous historical event that demonstrates how inappropriate it is for a government to create a policy to govern resources. In the 1600’s at Plymouth, Massachusetts Governor William Bradford tried an experiment of government intervention for the benefit of the common good. It failed miserably. Another example appeared much later in American history after the civil war during reconstruction. A famous foreign visitor named Alexis de Toquevill wrote about failures in America during reconstruction and documented the failure of intrusive government policies.
The experiment at the Bradford colony involved a small group of people that had to grow their own food and survive out in the wilderness with only the supplies they brought with them. Everyone worked in the fields to grow food. The arrangement was that no matter how hard anyone worked, or how much work any one man or woman accomplished everyone was welcome to take as much as they needed. In time, people got lazy but they would take resources and eat as much as they needed. Soon, the colony began to run out of supplies and almost starved. Next spring Bradford decided to have a hands off approach. He allocated a plot of land to every family and basically told them they were on their own to work cooperatively, grow their own food and barter with each other. He emphasized individual liberty and responsibility. They had plenty of food that year as everyone was motivated to work a lot harder knowing that they were directly responsible for their own success or failure. They created systems for conserving, networking, bartering and strengthening cottage industries. It’s no doubt that this story had an impact on the founding fathers who would come to appreciate the role of limited government. Even without Bradford’s example, oppression from King George was enough motivation for the founding fathers to create a constitution of limited government.
In our second example a famous french foreigner, Alexis de Toquevill documented injustices and failures of intrusive government policies based on his observations during the period of reconstruction. He cited stark differences between two neighboring states comparing the economic prosperity of one state that had minimal government intervention with the poor condition of its neighboring state where freedoms and individual liberties were limited. Government officials tried to have tight controls on one state’s growth and commerce, but it resulted in unfair and unjust practices and economic decline. He concluded as did Frederic Bastiat, another famous french historian that justice is not justice when someone is forced through a law or otherwise to give what they rightfully own to another who didn’t earn it.
The same would be true today. We could expect economic decline when our government controls our resources. The US government would have to get involved in the day to day affairs of businesses and individuals if it were to impose a national policy to increase renewable energy usage, for example. This would require government intrusion for monitoring the inter-dependency of persons’ property rights, access to money, goods and services. The idea that an energy crisis leading to social unrest as the justification for the federal government to intervene would not be acceptable for de Toquevill or Frederic Bastiat. They believed that the law should not be a vehicle to fix social problems, even if dire times come – and especially when dire times come when people are scared and need to be free to work out their problems themselves as a community.
The 10th Amendment of the US Constitution clearly states that any power not enumerated in the US Constitution is reserved to the states and the people. Simply put, the power to create and enforce a national policy for renewable energy usage is not enumerated in the US Constitution; therefore, this is not an appropriate role for the federal government even if it may serve the common good.
Occupy Plymouth Colony: How A Failed Commune Led To Thanksgiving. (2011, November). Retrieved from website http://www.forbes.com/sites/jerrybowyer/2011/11/23/occupy-plymouth-colony-how-a-failed-commune-led-to-thanksgiving/
The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Law, by Frédéric Bastiat. (2014, January). Retrieved from website http://www.gutenberg.org/files/44800/44800-h/44800-h.htm
Alexis De Tocqueville, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexis_de_Tocqueville