Thom Hartmann is the host of the nationally-syndicated radio show The Thom Hartmann Program. He is a liberal with a background in business. It’s important to note that he’s made a lot of money in his life, so much in fact that he has been able to retire at an early age. In the little bit of information that I’ve found on Hartmann, he’s put some of his profits to good use.
On a recent radio show Hartmann described “the excesses of unregulated capitalism” as a “cancer” that needed to be stopped by government.
He never described what that means. How should capitalism be regulated? If I have goods to sell at a certain price and people want to buy those goods at that price, how should that exchange be regulated? When the seller makes too much money? Who’s to say when someone makes “too much money” and by what standard?
Hartmann has a knack for equivocation – giving two meanings to the same word in the same paragraph. For example:
What is corrupting government is the libertarian notion that if you have a lot of money, you should be able to buy politicians. If you have a lot of money, you should be able to buy public opinion. If you have a lot of money, you should be able to buy up all your competition and put them out of business. That’s what’s corrupting this government.
The word “buy” is important. Hartmann is using it in two different ways. When you and I “buy” something, we are involved in a voluntary exchange of goods. Our exchange does not affect the ability or right of anyone else to buy or sell. There is no compulsion.
Using money to influence politicians is an altogether different matter. Bribing politicians is not capitalism. It’s because Congress violates the document they took an oath to uphold that money can “buy them off” (bribe) them. Capitalism is not at fault, because Socialists – anti-capitalists like Hartmann – do it too!
What if I want to be bought out? What if I want to sell my business to the highest bidder? I should be free to do it. Hartmann was “bought out” not “bought off”:
Hartmann founded International Wholesale Travel and its retail subsidiary Sprayberry Travel in Atlanta in 1983. . . . He sold his share in the business in 1986 and retired with his family to Germany to work with the international relief organization Salem International.
Capitalism made his company possible, and he had no qualms about selling his shares so he could do something he believes is rewarding. It is capitalism that makes what he does now possible. It’s capitalism that makes him free. He didn’t believe capitalism was a “cancer” when a bigger company wrote him a sizeable check for his shares.
During this same radio show, Hartmann made this comment:
I absolutely agree with Franklin Roosevelt that a necessitous man is not a free man, that if you’re unemployed, you’re not free. If you’re hungry, you’re not free. If you’re homeless, you’re not free, and the Founders did too, which is why the word “welfare” appears twice in the Constitution. “General welfare.”
I would say that when a person is dependent on the State for his food, education, and shelter, he is not free.
When capitalism is set free from the chains of a regulated economy, few people are homeless and hungry. It’s in anti-capitalist countries where people are homeless and hungry. For example, as recently as the mid-1970s, Zimbabwe — then Southern Rhodesia — was sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest exporter of food. Under the economic policies of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), supported by Maoist China and Fidel Castro and subsidized by the European Left, life in the once prosperous country has spiraled downward. “Over 4 million Zimbabweans – one third of the population – need food aid. The country is afflicted by 70 percent unemployment, chronic fuel shortages, and triple-digit inflation.”
To in an attempt to add weight to his socialist agenda, Hartmann mentions that the Constitution uses the word “welfare” twice. He implies a definition not intended by the original authors. Welfare in the 18th century did not mean what it means today, as James Madison was quick to point out in Federalist 41:
“But what color can the objection have [that the phrase ‘general welfare’ is not specified by particulars], when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon? . . . Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars . . . .”1
In the entire list that follows the semicolon, there is nothing that even remotely resembles the social welfare programs promoted by people like Hartmann. Following modern-day proponent’s of General Welfare, the national government has unlimited authority to do anything it defines as General Welfare. This is impossible. Madison points out that the phrase is found in the Articles of Confederation, and it has a particular meaning:
Article III. The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.
You can see by how “general welfare” is used to mean what applies to everyone generally and has nothing to do with wealth redistribution which a national healthcare care program would be. You can find similar uses of “general welfare” in Articles VIII and IX. Madison continues:
Construe either of these articles by the rules which would justify the construction put on the new Constitution, and they vest in the existing Congress a power to legislate in all cases whatsoever. But what would have been thought of that assembly, if, attaching themselves to these general expressions, and disregarding the specifications which ascertain and limit their import, they had exercised an unlimited power of providing for the common defense and general welfare? I appeal to the objectors themselves, whether they would in that case have employed the same reasoning in justification of Congress as they now make use of against the convention. How difficult it is for error to escape its own condemnation!
The modem concept of general welfare is most often defined in terms of wealth redistribution where some members of society (“the rich”) are taxed heavily in order to benefit the “welfare” of others (“the poor”).
General welfare, according to the Constitution, means welfare that benefits everybody more or less equally. This can be clearly seen by the phrase to provide “for the common Defense.” Taxes collected to defend the nation benefit everybody generally. Taxing some people so other people can have decent housing or an education or healthcare is not general welfare; it’s particular welfare.
Hartmann should know all of this since he wrote a book using the Federalist Papers. He claims to be a student of history and a lay historian on the Constitution, but he has an agenda that does not square with the Constitution. He gets away with his manipulation of history because most Americans know even less history and know almost nothing about the Constitution.
- The Federalist No. 41: General View of the Powers Conferred by The Constitution, No. 41 (January 19, 1788). [↩]