Constitution Day 2012 Lecture Delivered by James Capretta


James C. Capretta, a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) delivers Constitution Day lecture.

Thomas Jefferson was greatly concerned about the effects of ordinary selfishness on the freedom of individuals. He feared that those elected in a democratic government might use government benefits essentially to buy votes that would support the further expansion of the government′s powers. This, Jefferson argued, would lead to a gradual diminution of individual liberty. His first solution was a kind of virtue; if citizens could be educated to prefer their independence to any benefit the government might offer them, then they would tend to resist the expansion of its power. He feared, however, that the citizenry would be moved by ordinary selfishness and tend gradually to cede its liberty to the government in exchange for material benefits. Jefferson′s alternative solution was strict constitutional limits on the government′s powers that would prevent our selfishness from destroying our liberty.

James Capretta′s Constitution Day lecture outlined the collapse of those constitutional limits and detailed the vast expansion of national policies that deliver direct benefits, transfer payments, to individuals, policies such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and many others. He then drew out the dire consquences, particularly as the baby boom generation retires, for the fiscal and political future of the country. But how, he asked, can we correct this? Because the Constitution no longer does, we must stop ourselves from voting for benefits for the sake of generations to come. That sort of sacrifice, he suggested, requires a kind of civic virtue, which is where Jefferson′s thought began.