A government 'of the people' or 'over' the people?

COMMENTARY Government Regulation

A government 'of the people' or 'over' the people?

Nov 19th, 2013 3 min read

Former Senior Writer

Rich served as a Senior Writer for The Heritage Foundation.

Speaking over the graves of patriotic Americans 150 years ago today at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln delivered a short speech that may be the most important in American history.

To conclude his two minutes of remarks, Lincoln declared that the Civil War was being waged so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Largely because of his efforts, it didn’t.

The Union side went on to win that war after much more bloody fighting, and Lincoln was perhaps the final casualty, assassinated at his moment of triumph.

Still, what mattered then, and what matters even more today, is that Lincoln was focused on protecting “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

That promise, though, is being threatened again today — this time not by violent interests, but by equally virulent interests.

A frightening number of Americans seem to want to replace government “of the people” with government “over” the people. Consider the way that our state and federal governments react to the referendum process.

This Progressive Party idea first popped up early in the 20th century, and was supposed to help protect “the people” against corrupt elected officials — as if these weren’t the very representatives put into office by “the people” through elections.

It’s an unnecessary step, really. The protections of the Constitution and the republican government it guarantees each state should be enough.

Nevertheless, many states have a referendum process in place, and these states allow voters to make changes to state constitutions without working through legislatures. Marriage comes to mind.

As recently as 2008, voters in California were asked whether their state should amend its constitution to ensure that gay marriages would not be recognized by the state.

Some 52 percent of voters agreed. This followed an earlier proposition (in 2000) that had been approved with 61 percent of the vote.

Why did voters have to go back to the polls? Because a group of judges thought they’d made the “wrong” decision the first time. Of course, different judges then disagreed with the 2008 decision, so a court suspended it.

That case worked its way to the Supreme Court this summer. The justices there punted, saying they couldn’t hear the case because the state’s governor and attorney general refused to defend a law passed by their constituents.

So much for government “for” the people. The message seems to be: go ahead and vote for whatever you want, but we, the judges, will decide whether you’ve made the right choice. That’s hardly a Lincolnian view.

And the bureaucracy of the federal government is getting in on the act as well. Unelected officials are perfectly comfortable telling people what’s good for them (and, supposedly, not good for them) in dozens of ways. Obamacare is a prime example.

Earlier this month, President Obama attempted to explain away the fact that millions of Americans are seeing their health insurance plans cancelled.

“Most people will be able to buy better plans for the same price or even cheaper than what they've gotten before,” Obama told supporters.

“Now, some Americans with higher incomes will pay more on the front end for better insurance with better benefits and better protections that could eventually help them a lot, even if right now they’d rather be paying less,” he said.

Set aside that this is a far cry from the president’s opt-repeated claim that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”

The simple fact is that under Obamacare, the government doesn’t trust the people to make sensible decisions about health insurance. It will tell them what they need to buy, even if “they’d rather be paying less.”

This federal paternalism isn’t limited to health care, unfortunately. There’s also the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau set up under the Dodd-Frank bank reform bill.

This bureau is “amassing an Orwell-worthy database on all manner of spending, including credit cards, mortgages, auto loans, overdrafts, and payday loans,” the Heritage Foundation’s Diane Katz reports.

All, supposedly, to “protect” Americans. Somehow, having all that information on federal computers doesn’t sound all that safe.

In the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln was confident that Americans could govern ourselves. In fact, he insisted we could, and declared we were proving that to the rest of the world.

As his Gettysburg Address turns 150 years old this month, Americans would do well to recapture Lincoln’s confidence.

- Rich Tucker is a senior writer at the Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.