Arbitrary Government is Bad Government—Here’s to You, Mr. Madison

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James Madison warned us that an unpredictable government is dangerous. Roger Bianco explains why Madison's warning was never more urgent than now.

When I was 13 years old and my sister was 15, I asked my father if I could go over to a friend’s house and stay there until 10PM.

“OK,” my father replied, “but, be back at 10 sharp!”

My sister perked up. “Dad,” she said, “I’d like to go over to my friend’s home and stay until 10. Is that OK?”

“No way,” my father answered. “You’re a girl. I don’t think you should stay out that late.”

My sister looked at me. I looked at her. Confusion and consternation in our eyes. Then, I quickly realized I was burning time. I had to go! I had places to be! Being that I was given more freedom, I got out of there. A quick glance back at my sister revealed a look of total astonishment.

My father’s decision was clearly unfair, somewhat difficult to understand and seemed arbitrary. One set of rules for me, one set for my sister. I benefited and my sister was restricted. A frustrating episode . . . for her, at least.

As most children are, we were subject to the arbitrary whims of our father. As adults, however, we should not be subject to arbitrary whims of government at any level. The unfortunate truth is, we are and it can be confusing and damaging.

In the critical area of property rights, government has taken the arbitrary use of its power to a new level. In the 2005 Kelo case, the US Supreme Court ruled that it was OK for a local government to take peoples’ homes, tear them down and hand over the property to a drug company to support proposed economic development. In the recent Colorado case of Tom’s Diner, The Denver Landmark Preservation Commission voted unanimously to restrict the restaurant owner’s desire to sell his property to a developer to build needed housing.

In one instance, government professed to violate property rights in support of economic development and in the other, government acted to stop economic development. Maybe the look on your face now resembles that of my sister’s face years ago.

How could this happen? How can a local government act one way in one instance involving a citizen’s private property and another way in the other situation? The answer: We have forgotten the words of founding father James Madison in Federalist 62:

“(G)reat injury results from an unstable government. The want of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking, the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing arrangements. What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plans may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed? What farmer or manufacturer will lay himself out for the encouragement given to any particular cultivation or establishment, when he can have no assurance that his preparatory labors and advances will not render him a victim to an inconstant government?”

Said another way, if government is not consistent and steady, enterprising people of all races, genders, sexual preferences, political persuasions, heights and weights will not know how they will be treated. They will not know whether the fruits of their labor, the creations of their minds or their property will be protected.

If it gets bad enough, if government is unpredictable enough, no one would blame entrepreneurs for saying “The heck with it” and not start the business, not create, not improve lives.

In the end, consistent and predictable government is best. Government that can be relied upon to always protect our property, our creations and the fruits of our labor sends a signal of stability. That kind of government is clear, good and needed.

James Madison warned us. Given trends in property rights violations, what he said over two hundred years ago applies as much today, if not more, than it did then.

So, here’s to you, Mr. Madison. We hope and pray that your ideas, your sober and consistent thoughts of proper government survive in the face of the on-slaughter of arbitrary government.

Here’s to you, Mr. Madison.

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