“I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.”
President Barack Hussein Obama
2012 State of the Union Speech
Often this statement is sold as a compromise between political anarchism and hard core socialism. The thinking goes that such a position of, “the government should only do for the people what the people are unable to do for themselves,” is a statement that is some kind of middle ground between socialism and anarchism but instead it allows for all kinds of Statist intervention since this bromide leaves as an open question as to who decides what the people are unable to do for themselves.
The US Constitution already enumerates and delegates to the Federal Government precisely what it can and cannot do. When Politicians like Obama or Lincoln (Both Presidents who vastly expanded the size of the State) invoke this cliche you can be sure that the Statist Politician in question already has in mind exceeding the authority of the Constitution by doing things that they want to do that they believe the people cannot do and they believe in this extra constitutional activism without considering that what they are saying the people cannot do are things that the people do not want to do. And, even if the people wanted to do those things they really are not able to do, the Constitution requires them to amend the Constitution before those things are done.
So, this bromide does not go far enough. It has a loophole, a “leak,” through which an Statist tyrant can wiggle for what they [citizens] will not do and, therefore, “cannot” do for themselves is to implement all the utopian schemes that enter the minds of tyrants, things that such schemers think the citizens ought to do but which the citizens do not want to do.
So, the correct way to phrase this bromide would be to say, “government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more, as long as whatever it is that the government does is in keeping with the enumerated and delegated powers of the Constitution.”
Honestly, every boneheaded Utopian scheme promoted and passed by the Federal Government is always done under the rubric of this proverb. The Statists are forever saying, “Well, we are only doing this because the people cannot do it for themselves.” Whether it was the passage of Social Security, or the Tennessee Valley Authority, or Medicare, or Medicaid, or Seniors Prescription Drug laws, in all cases these extra-constitutional Socialist actions are pursued because it is a good thing that the people can not do themselves.
As Leonard Read could write,
“The formula for governmental action implies that the people lack the resources to preform such services for themselves. But Government has no magic purchasing power — no resources other than those drawn from private purchasing power. What we have here is a rejection of the market, a substitution of pressure group political power for the voluntary choices of the individuals who vote with their dollars. This criterion for the scope of the state leads away from private enterprise toward the omnipotent state, which is socialism.
The enormity of a project (i.e. — Space Exploration, Coast to coast mail delivery, Government schools, etc.) is no excuse for governmental interventionism. When the market votes ‘yes,’ capital is attracted, regardless of the amount required to do the job….
Government has no right to use force or coercion for any purpose whatsoever that does not pre-exist as the moral right of each individual from whom the government derives its power and authority.”