What Would the Founders Say Back on the Road to Serfdom?

The title refers to two recent books: What Would the Founders Say, by Larry Schweikart and Back on the Road to Serfdom: The Resurgence of Statism, edited by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. On the surface, these are very different books that treat distinct topics in unlike styles. Schweikart identifies ten fundamental questions concerning the role of government – ranging from “Should the government stimulate the economy and otherwise ensure full employment?” to “Should…governments…have the authority to regulate gun ownership?” He then presents ten essays, each addressed to one question, in which he strives to explain how he believes the Founders would have answered the question. He does this by meticulously consulting original sources (of course including America’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers), but also pamphlets, letters and newspaper articles penned by the Founders. His findings are neatly encapsulated in these paragraphs from his final summary chapter.

It should be apparent from what the Founders said and how they acted that such current practices as bailing out banks and auto companies, having the federal government dictate diet and health practices, requiring the government to provide jobs, and sending the nation spiraling into astronomical levels of debt would all be anathema to them. Many modern government “functions” are so outrageously outside the powers that the founders permitted the government to have that, faced with modern society, they would certainly be revolutionaries, burning the whole structure down to start anew. In such a case, a new bill of rights would likely be double its current size, and deeper in specificity and the limitations on the power of the federal government would almost certainly be vastly expanded.


Jefferson wrote in the Declaration that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government.” Opposing tyranny and despotism are not only man’s right, Jefferson concluded, but it was “their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” The current administration and those in Congress today seldom refer to the Founders, and with good reason. The Founders would have utterly rejected their attitudes and direction.


What can we learn from the Founders, even when “our” problems weren’t “their” problems? A great deal. They operated on a set of principles that, like mathematics, was applicable in almost any situation, and across time. It is the genius of the Constitution that it provided flexibility to adapt to almost any modern problem, while at the same time containing the overall imperative of reducing or limiting the power of the national government and placing power in the hands of the people. Not surprisingly, virtually none of the modern Left – save when it comes to certain civil rights – ever refers to the Constitution. To them, it is a stumbling block, an impediment. To the Left, the Constitution must be overcome, flanked or ignored. When Martin Luther King Jr. led civil rights marchers in singing “We Shall Overcome,” he meant that they would overcome the barriers that denied them their constitutional rights. When modern leftists employ the phrase, they mean “We Shall Overcome the Constitution”! A better solution to the nation’s problems would be overcoming the Left and its deviant, perverse, and, yes, sinister ideas, once and for all.

Woods’ book also contains ten essays, but each by a different author. The essays treat the origins, development and consequences of massively expanded government in our so-called mixed economy. Topics treated include: protectionism, entrepreneurship (its practice and its vilification), crony capitalism, class warfare and cultural collapse. Whereas single authorship in Schweikart’s book leads, not surprisingly, to an enviable consistency in the content and style of the essays, the varied authorship in Woods’ book results in markedly different styles, organization and effectiveness. However, the ultimate conclusions are remarkably similar to Schweikart’s. Here are the telling passages from Woods’ introductory chapter:

The unifying theme of this book, though, is the brute fact that a shift toward statism is indeed occurring, and that it will not end happily. History is littered with foreign and domestic crises that became pretexts for the expansion of government power, and the present instance appears to be no exception.


The problems we face stem from the mixed economy, as opposed to the fully socialist ones that Hayek criticized. All over the world, the impossible promises governments have made to their populations are beginning to unravel. Millions of people have arranged their lives in the expectation of various forms of government support that will be mathematically impossible to provide.


What the rising generations across the developed world are facing is a genuine road to serfdom. They will have to work harder and longer than their parents just to tread water, if they can find work at all in artificial economies battered by years of “stimulus” and misdirected resources. Retirement will seem like something out of science fiction. And to add insult to injury, they will be putting in this effort on behalf of transfer programs that are going to collapse anyway – Social Security, Medicare, pensions, and so forth.


The more functions the state usurps from civil society, the more institutions of civil society will atrophy. Once supplanted by coercive government, tasks that people used to perform on a voluntary basis come to be viewed as impossible for civil society to manage in the absence of government – even though civil society did indeed perform these functions once upon a time. The spiritless population comes, in turn, to look for political solutions even to the most trivial problems.


Americans are taught a great deal of civics-book nonsense about the nature of the state, the benefits it confers, and the unbearable difficulties we would face without its careful custodianship of society. In reality, Americans are ruled by a patchwork of self-perpetuating fiefdoms, which beneath a veneer of public-interest rhetoric seek to pursue their own power and resources.

There is, one would think, another way for human beings to live than this. Ironically, it is government itself that is about to teach that very lesson. When its grandiose schemes and promises inevitably unravel, all that will be left is civil society managing its own affairs, the very thing we have been taught to believe is impossible.

Both books are thoroughly researched and very well written. However, like so many of the genre, it is unfortunately quite likely that they will be preaching to the converted. Conservatives will find much within these books with which they will heartily agree. They will also find new information and perspectives that will boost their arsenal in their fervent, if forlorn, verbal battles with their liberal colleagues and friends. Liberals, on the other hand, will find little of interest to them in these fine books. That is simply because liberals won’t read them. In both books it is immediately clear that the authors condemn the ongoing liberal assault on America’s economy and culture, and that they believe that said assault is bringing America to ruin. Liberals treat such beliefs as hogwash (when they are not branding them as treasonous) and they certainly will not expose themselves to that kind of thought by reading traitorous books.

Continuing to pursue the thread that – despite their apparent differences – the books are surprisingly similar, I wish to point out three subthemes that are present in both books, even if they are not emphasized.

  1. Both books inherently assume that America began to seriously lose sight of the wisdom of the Founders, and started its unwise trek down the road to serfdom during the so-called Progressive Era, which began in earnest in 1900 with the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt.
  2. With rare exception (under Coolidge and Reagan, e.g.), the country has moved steadily over the last century and a decade to the Left. It experienced extreme lurches to port during the eras of Wilson, FDR, LBJ and between 2008 and 2010 under Obama-Pelosi-Reid. Through its domination of the media, educational establishment, legal profession, government bureaucracies, libraries and foundations, the Left has been able to monopolize the national conversation, presenting (even egregiously) leftist policies as mainstream while demonizing (even modestly) conservative ideas as perverse, dangerous and out of the mainstream.
  3. A century of damage is not going to be undone overnight – if it is going to be undone at all. To think – even if the Republicans recapture the White House and Senate in 2012 – that 18th and 19th century-style America is going to rapidly reemerge is the height of folly. No second coming of Reagan is going to balance the budget, retire the debt, free up our markets, restore the concept of American exceptionalism, re-instill traditional values, deregulate the government bureaucracy and restore prosperity – all in the space of four or eight years. It will take at least two generations. Alas, it is far from clear that the American people can sustain the will over that long a period to accomplish the task.
Which brings me to my last point about the books. Both tracts contain more a description of “what went wrong” rather than a prescription of “how to make it right.” Recipes for fixes are scarce in either book and what suggestions are made are actually quite minor – a step in the right direction, rather than a radical global fix. What stratagems appear are more in the vogue of “a camel’s nose under the tent” as opposed to a second American Revolution. This is in some sense ironic because it mimics the Left’s “successful” 20th century game plan, that is, the slow, steady, inexorable expansion of government control of the economy, politics and culture. It pains me to recommend that conservatives take a page from the liberal playbook – as these books implicitly do – but that might be the only winning strategy.
This article also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at: