Commentary

Don’t Do the People’s Business: Mind Your Own

By Edward L. Hudgins
January 28, 1999

President Clinton and his defenders complain that the impeachment trial prevents him from “doing the people’s business.” No doubt that phrase resonates better than “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” While one might suspect that Clinton uses “the people’s business” phrase like an intern, to service his temporary needs, it does raise the question of what, exactly, is the people’s business?

In the State of the Union Address, Clinton demonstrated his view of the job of government. Among his plethora of proposals, he wants Washington to hire more teachers, build more schools, expand Medicare benefits, and invest taxpayers funds in the private sector to save Social Security.

But is this conception of “doing the people’s business” valid? For the answer, members of Congress who currently consult the Constitution to glean the meaning of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” should check the clear words of Article I, Section 8, which enumerates the limited powers of the federal government. (Sorry, the “general welfare” clause is not an open-ended grant of power.) Consider some examples.

There is nothing in the Constitution about education, a function traditionally reserved for states or the private sector. And as federal spending has grown over the past three decades (to about $35 billion annually, compared to more than $300 billion at the state and local level), and as total spending per pupil from all government sources has grown as well, student performance has fallen. Just as significant, falling performance has been associated with more centralized government education establishments. After World War II there were about 100,000 school districts. Parents actually knew members of their boards of education. Today there are only around 15,000 districts and Clinton wants the Department of Education to dictate policy.


In a healthy constitutional republic individuals prefer to run their own lives, to meet their own challenges, to solve their own problems for themselves or through civil institutions such as families, churches, and fraternal organizations.


There is nothing in the Constitution that gives the federal government authority to provide health insurance or regulate the country’s health care system. In fact, federal involvement has created many of that systems’ problems. The tax code gave a deduction to employers for providing workers with health insurance but not to individuals who purchased insurance on their own. That policy removed market power from the hands of patients, contributing to high medical costs. And the costly burden of federal Medicare regulations has driven most solo and small group medical practices, that is, most traditional family doctors who many patients prefer, out of business or into large HMOs.

What of the government Social Security system, or Clinton’s plan simply to give people taxpayers’ funds for “universal savings accounts?” These are not authorized by the Constitution either. Of course, after World War II an average family paid only about 4 percent of its income to federal taxes. Today the average federal tax burden is about 24 percent, with another 10 percent tacked on by state and local governments perhaps 10 percent more in indirect taxes through federal regulations. No wonder people can’t save for retirement or a new home or for the kids’ college education.

So here’s Clinton’s conception of “doing the people’s business.” Most individuals are incapable of tying their shoes or wiping their noses without federal government assistance. The Imperial President will bestow bread and circuses on the people, program after program, to meet everyone’s every need.

Clinton and his ilk are pushers just as much as peddlers of crack cocaine. For them, “doing the people’s business” is appealing to people’s weaknesses, the desire to shirk responsibility, to get something for nothing. They addict people to government programs, and are themselves addicted to power.

In a healthy constitutional republic individuals prefer to run their own lives, to meet their own challenges, to solve their own problems for themselves or through civil institutions such as families, churches, and fraternal organizations. Free men and women would be insulted by an elected official offering to take care of their every need, to treat them like children needing a father, serfs needing a master. They would realize that government programs are too seductive, that it is too easy to become dependent on them. They would realize that such dependence eventually leads to the sorry spectacle of citizens with servile souls applauding the hand that takes away their money, freedom, and dignity and then throws them crumbs.

America’s Founders well understood the nature of the federal government’s and the people’s business: The Tenth Amendment states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The response to those elected officials who claim to be “doing the people’s business” should be “Mind your own business, not ours!”

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.