What Would Jefferson Do?: How Limited Government Got Turned Upside Down

What Would Jefferson Do?: How Limited Government Got Turned Upside Down

In the fall of 1964, Ronald Reagan went on national television to tell the American people about a growing tyranny in their midst, “subtler, but no less dangerous” than Soviet communism. He also told them to cast their presidential vote for Barry Goldwater, who was ready to tame this new political beast and put a stop to those people who would “trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state.” Now known simply as “The Speech,” it was a performance that launched the extreme right wing of the country from the political margins into the highest seats of government. The resulting political realignment sharply affected how wealth and power are distributed in our society.

Less often noted than his frightening analogies with communism was Reagan’s view that the welfare state violated the “freedoms intended for us by the Founding Fathers.” As Reagan declared in The Speech, “The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing.”

The rhetorical device was simple. By comparing the welfare state with the founders’ dedication to limited government, free-market conservatives fashioned a powerful tale of abandoned principles and even tyrannical intent. The message was bracing, yet edifying: cutting taxes and reducing public spending and regulation will bring us closer to what the people who founded our country believed in 1776 and in the early nation. By returning to limited government and laissez-faire economic principles, we can protect our freedom, and America will be saved.

For the “New Right” movement inspired by Goldwater and Reagan after 1964, attacking the welfare state was a political reenactment of the American founding—a revival, they claimed, of “Jeffersonian democracy.” When they cut taxes, they talked about the Boston Tea Party. When they opposed campaign finance reform, they argued that giving money to politicians is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment: limiting such money is no better than shutting down newspapers or throwing people in jail for calling King George III a tyrant. Even Milton Friedman joined the “founding principles” crusade, arguing in his 1980 bestseller Free to Choose that the modern Democratic Party is the “greatest threat” to everything Thomas Jefferson believed in.

What these modern-day Jeffersonians hated most of all was government redistribution. In his Independence Day oration at the Jefferson Memorial in 1987, Reagan called for a new “economic bill of rights” to liberate the people by privatizing government services and by reducing taxes, regulation, and social spending. Charles Murray recapitulated this theme in his Clinton-era jeremiad What It Means to Be a Libertarian (1997), which begins with a long excerpt fro...