Ben Franklin: Why government needs to be small

Ben Franklin's desire was for a limited government and a Constitution that would protect Americans from the worst impulses of government.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Siffrein Duplessis/Wikicommons

WASHINGTON, February 24, 2015 — Partisan warriors lob charges back and forth, framing different issues according to who espouses them. Remember when President Clinton wanted to “privatize Social Security?” Republicans went nuts, and their supporters predictably jumped on that wagon.

But a few years later, when President Bush proposed the same (bad) idea, Republicans adored it—and Democrats said he was stupid. Same issue, different parties—same arguments, everyone switching sides. Nobody’s thinking.

Also Read: Kern: A Constitutional manifesto to save America

What is at the root of this idiocy? People are stupid; positions are pre-decided by party leaders, regardless of the idea; the answer is somewhere in the middle.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. At the root of this idiocy is that we, the people, allow politicians and government to usurp our ability to think critically. What is at the root of this idiocy is that we not only think the government knows what’s good for everybody, but that they care about what’s best for everybody—and that there is only one solution to every problem, and that it fits everybody.

Our only defense against total government control of everything—and bad solutions for everybody—is to deny power to the government. The less powerful government is, the more those with the worst motives will have to look elsewhere for a paycheck. Take away the power and you take away the threats, insurance and payback—the tools of the political rent-seeker.

If government can’t harm the people or help its cronies, the people and the cronies won’t be intimidated or encouraged and will take their interests elsewhere.

But Ben Franklin said it all better. Not only was he worried about the size and power of government, he didn’t want the presidency to be a paying position. Congress was about to award a salary of $25,000 per year to the President, an immense fortune designed to place the presidency above the temptations of money from any other source. Of course, everyone at the time knew George Washington was going to be President, and they were all fine with that. Washington was unique, however, and Franklin knew that. After Washington, mortal men would vie for the office.

Franklin didn’t want to pay the President, but not because he was already “wealthy enough,” as a modern-day socialist-redistributionist would say.

Read Also:  The U.S. Constitutional Convention: A peaceful revolution that transformed America

“In this particular of salaries to the executive branch, I happen to differ; and, as my opinion may appear new and chimerical, it is only from a persuasion that it is right, and from a sense of duty, that I hazard it. The committee will judge of my reasons when they have heard them, and their judgment may possibly change mine. I think I see inconveniences in the appointment of salaries; I see none in refusing them, but, on the contrary, great advantages.

“Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice—the love of power and the love of money. Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but, when united in view of the same object, they have, in many minds, the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor, that shall, at the same time, be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it. The vast number of such places it is that renders the British government so tempestuous. The struggles for them are the true source of all those factions which are perpetually dividing the nation, distracting its councils, hurrying it sometimes into fruitless and mischievous wars, and often compelling a submission to dishonorable terms of peace.

“And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable preeminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust. It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will thrust themselves into your government and be your rulers. And these, too, will be mistaken in the expected happiness of their situation, for their vanquished competitors, of the same spirit, and from the same motives, will perpetually be endeavoring to distress their administration, thwart their measures, and render them odious to the people.

“Besides these evils, sir, tho we may set out in the beginning with moderate salaries, we shall find that such will not be of long continuance. Reasons will never be wanting for proposed augmentations; and there will always be a party for giving more to the rulers, that the rulers may be able, in return, to give more to them. Hence, as all history informs us, there has been in every state and kingdom a constant kind of warfare between the governing and the governed; the one striving to obtain more for its support, and the other to pay less. And this has alone occasioned great convulsions, actual civil wars, ending either in dethroning of the princes or enslaving of the people.

“Generally, indeed, the ruling power carries its point, and we see the revenues of princes constantly increasing, and we see that they are never satisfied, but always in want of more. The more the people are discontented with the oppression of taxes, the greater need the prince has of money to distribute among his partizans, and pay the troops that are to suppress all resistance, and enable him to plunder at pleasure. There is scarce a king in a hundred who would not, if he could, follow the example of Pharaoh—get first all the people’s money, then all their lands, and then make them and their children servants for ever …”

Because of the efforts and wisdom of Franklin and men like him, we got a Constitution that protected the people from specific threats—in the Bill of Rights—and from their systemic destruction via unlimited government, as exemplified in the body of the document.

Thank you, Doctor Franklin.

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  • Tim Kern

    Franklin said, “And this has alone occasioned great convulsions, actual civil wars, ending either in dethroning of the princes or enslaving of the people.”

    Interesting, isn’t it, that Dr. Franklin saw only two possible outcomes. Whether by civil war or evolution, we have seen that his choices are the only ones. Which way are Americans going to go?