Gerald Ford has left us with memories of a man who did his duty competently and courageously, and with something else, too — one of the great lines uttered by a president in recent times.
“A government big enough to give you everything you want,” he said in an address to Congress in 1974, “is a government big enough to take away from you everything you have.”
It’s a simple sentence, but behind it lies centuries of aspirations to limit government for the sake of liberty, and behind it lies the contrary forces, those that would limit the possibilities of individual lives, often in the name of security and safety, or perhaps in the name of “social justice.”
Because of these forces, one federal program follows another, usually availing far less than promised, if anything at all, while costing far more than hinted. This is money we will no longer have in our pockets; every additional dollar taken through taxes for governmental purposes is one less dollar we can spend as we choose, and, to that degree, a diminution of our freedom.
The bigness isn’t measured by dollars alone, of course, but in a variety of other ways, such as the 60 regulatory agencies that encircle our lives with 144,000 pages of rules that probably endanger us more than they protect us. The bigness can also be measured by increases in rights-reducing powers, as when the Supreme Court said local governments can take your property if they can bring in more public-serving revenues by the infamy.
Try to implement means of furthering the common good without resort to governmental coerciveness, however, and you get someone like Barack Obama saying that talk of an “ownership society” is equivalent to a belief in “social Darwinism.” The Bush administration’s idea of extending ownership was thereby to extend entry into America’s bounty through free-market devices, but Obama saw it as neglecting children born into poverty or not caring about disadvantages of various other kinds.
The truth is that the administration’s generosity with other people’s money has been significant, if also a significant surprise to both liberals and conservatives who have not done their homework on the subject. The columnist Deroy Murdock did, and has disclosed that the Republican Congress in the Bush years approved the spending of record amounts on programs for the poor, billions more than the Democrats ever had. Another recent study has revealed that while conservatives on the average are less wealthy than liberals, they give far more to private charities.
In their resistance to constant, ever more intrusive governmental growth, conservatives are not demonstrating a lack of compassion or zero sense of obligation to fellow citizens. They are not aiming to starve the poor, but to serve the poor and the rest of us, as well, through principles that emphasize freedom and self-reliance while simultaneously promoting economic opportunities for one and all.
No single sentence can give us all the complexities of such an issue. We should not look to Gerald Ford’s observation as somehow accomplishing as much. We should look to it instead as a summation of a lesson that history keeps teaching and many keep ignoring, and a lesson well worth pondering in greater detail.
Examiner columnist Jay Ambrose is a former editor of two daily newspapers. He may be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com