Issues & Insights

Did Cato Have Biden In Mind?

LBJ Library photo by Jay Godwin.

 

As I write this, Americans have made it through half a year under the Biden administration. While dynamic is a word seldom applied to our president, in that time he has been very dynamic in trying to change the scale and scope of government and the power of the executive branch in particular.

The “revolutionary” directions steered by the Biden administration suggest that we might benefit from reconsidering some of the wisdom on that matter from America’s revolutionary period. In particular, we might consider that from George Clinton, New York’s first governor (and a sharp contrast to its current one), and vice president under both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Clinton was a leading Anti-Federalist, who feared that the federal government would become too powerful, and abuse individual and state’s rights. In particular, writing under the pseudonym Cato, he argued that the president would abuse his power.

His ambition for power and aggrandizement will oppress and grind you … the complication of interests, the science of government will become intricate and perplexed and too mysterious for you to understand and observe. 

The execution of revenue laws (will be) a fruitful source of oppression … the extent, policy and practice of it will naturally lead to make odious distinctions among citizens. 

[His] great power … may be dangerous to the liberties of a republic … This tempts his ambition … and … gives him the means and time to execute his designs; he therefore fancies that he may be great and glorious by oppressing his fellow-citizens. 

He will attach many adherents to him and he will be surrounded by expectants and courtiers … if the president is possessed of ambition, he has power and time sufficient to ruin his country. 

He will therefore be unsupported by proper information and advice and will generally be directed by minions or favorites. 

[There would be] dangerous inequality … created among citizens, as relative to their rights and property. 

Opinion … may not always be a permanent obstruction against the encroachments of government [beyond constitutional restrictions] … ambition … will teach where limits are not explicitly fixed to have separate and distinct interests from the people … a general presumption that rulers will govern well, is not a sufficient security. 

The doctrine of taxation … nothing requires more wisdom and prudence than the regulation of that portion which is taken from and of that which is left to the subject – and if you anticipate what will be the enormous expense of this new government … little will that portion be, which will be left to you. I know there are politicians who believe that you should be loaded with taxes … but … what can inspire you with industry, if the greatest measure of your labors are to be swallowed up in taxes? … This government … will require more money than its commerce can afford government … therefore must have recourse to … a long train of impositions, which their ingenuity will suggest. 

The burdens on you will be insupportable – your complaints will be inefficacious … you and the government … will, one day, be at issue on this point … if government therefore can, notwithstanding every opposition, raise revenue on such things as are odious and burdensome to you, they can do anything. 

Money may be contracted for and you must pay it, and a thousand other obligations may be entered into; all of which will become the supreme law of the land and you are bound by it … who is there to punish – the executive can always cover himself … neither the executive nor … his advisors can be brought to punishment for maladministration.

While President Joe Biden celebrated his first half-year in office by claiming to have produced wonders, what it has produced in me is wonder at how starkly at odds his initiatives have been from the ideas that were fundamental to those of our founders most concerned with protecting Americans’ liberties, such as George Clinton. If we are as concerned about what sort of country America is to be as he was about what it was to be, it is worth reconsidering his insights.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. 

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