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What Happens to the People When the Government’s Power Expands?

Last updated on March 9, 2021

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, United States, August 27, 2019.

Remember, let’s be polite; let’s be respectful, but most of all, let’s be outspoken.

In the past few decades, the federal government, more specifically the Executive Branch, has increased its power by epic proportions.

This influx of power began during the Great Depression and has only increased since then. President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the government’s role in the economy by forming new executive departments like the US Securities and Exchange Commerce, passed legislation to stimulate economic growth, and created artificial jobs. Under the New Deal, FDR passed the Social Security Act, which granted health insurance to specific groups of Americans.

Essentially, FDR set a precedent for broader executive powers and greater federal government oversight. As the Miller Center of Public Affairs stated, “Under FDR, the American federal government assumed new and powerful roles in the nation’s economy, in its corporate life, and in the health, welfare, and well-being of its citizens.”

As FDR’s successors expanded the power of the government exponentially, matters of national security became the main rationale for the government’s increased intervention. The most recent example was September 11, 2001, when Al-Qaeda attacked America and killed nearly 3,000 Americans.

In response, the US Congress passed a bipartisan bill that expanded the power of the National Security Agency. With a 357-66 vote in the House and a 99-1 vote in the Senate, the Patriot Act was passed in an overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion. When President Bush signed the Patriot Act into law, the act stated that law enforcement can breach a residency without a warrant if a suspected terrorist was located there.

The response was not as controversial at the time since everyone expected swift and immediate action from the federal government, but by allowing the government to make such a bold move, a serious question must be answered: how much power should our government actually have?

To really answer the timeless question of the expanding power of the government, one has to understand that the simplest purpose of government is to do for people what they cannot do for themselves.

The most obvious and generally bipartisan ideas that fall under this basic description of the government is national defense, domestic public safety, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Justice Department, and a host of federal agencies. However, the question of government power becomes more complex and less clear-cut when people begin to talk about universal healthcare, funding for abortion agencies, nationalizing entire industries of the private sector, and drafting legislation that intervenes in cultural issues.

This controversy is basically what drives major modern political ideological differences between conservatism, liberalism, progressivism, and libertarianism. All four main beliefs differ when it comes to the role of government in respect to the people they govern. In a way, this debate of government power centralizes around the Founding Fathers’ perception of the government.

In a sense, the Founding Fathers believed liberty is the core of our government’s relationship with the people and national identity.

In George Washington’s inaugural address, he stated, “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

In a letter written by President John Adams to his wife Abigail Adams, he argued, “But a constitution of government once changed from freedom can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.”

In an 1838 speech, President Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

What modern society could draw from this is that government should only serve as a means to a greater end. It can be a tool for exploration, scientific innovation, and economic advancement, but never as the be-all or end-all of our society. The government should never influence social change or pass judgment on traditional institutions. It cannot and should not dictate how parents should teach their children or enforce a unilateral theology. It is not the paradigm of ethical standards or the enforcer of morality.

Government is there to serve the absolute needs of the people, to provide their general welfare, and secure their protection from present-day threats.

As always, we should be wary of any new presidential administration, but we should be especially vigilant of an administration that relies more on executive action than congressional legislation. Biden is starting his presidency with a slim Democratic majority in both parts of the US Congress but insists on rolling out executive overreach, which should be observed by the American people with a watchful eye.

Nearly 1500 years ago, a Roman poet named Juvenal asked the question: Quis custodiet Ipsos custodes? This timeless and rhetorical question in Latin translates to “Who will guard the guards themselves?” In the case of the American republic, it must be remembered that it is the government that answers to the will of the people, not the other way around.

It seems nearly inevitable that the government will only expand in its power, but if we are to learn anything from history, it is that the government can only be legitimized if it has the consent of its governed. If the American people are to give that consent then, they must simultaneously realize that individual and civil liberties will be the ultimate barrier against a tyrannical usurpation.

Remember, let’s be polite; let’s be respectful, but most of all, let’s be outspoken.

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