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Ronald Reagan’s Economic Bill of Rights

“Taxation is forced labor; and if it goes beyond reasonable bounds, it is a yoke of oppression.”

by Scott L. Vanatter

Nearing the end of his presidency, Ronald Reagan laid out a final challenge to the nation, its leaders and citizens. He sought to a.) summarize the principles which made possible his record economic growth, and b.) lay out a clear path to secure economic growth into the future.

The president spoke at an Independence Day celebration at the Jefferson Memorial at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event on July 3, 1987.

As was his practice, he ground most all his political arguments in the principles of liberty and the overt design of the Founders. He contrasted how other countries are founded with that of America, that it is “our love of liberty” which “separates our celebration of independence from those of most other nations.” Pointing to the unique position America holds in world history, he said, “Down through history, there have been many revolutions, but virtually all of them only exchanged one set of rulers for another set of rulers. Ours was the only truly philosophical revolution. It declared that government would have only those powers granted to it by the people.”

Aware of the lofty pedestal he placed our nation, he also cautioned against undue national pride. “Let no one charge, however, that ours is blind nationalism. We do not hide our shortcomings. Yes, we have our imperfections, but there are no people on this planet who have more reason to hold their heads high than do the citizens of the United States of America.”

Rather than fighting for conquest, land, or power, he taught yet again, that the “United States of America remains the greatest force for human freedom on this planet,” and, “we’re darn proud of it.”

Reagan reminded the nation that “Freedom, . . . is, in fact, secured, more than anything else, by those limitations I mentioned that are placed on those in government.”

Contrasting with our Founder, Reagan said, “While the Constitution sets our political freedoms in greater detail, these economic freedoms are part and parcel of it.”

He challenged us to “recognize anew the economic freedoms of our people and, with the Founding Fathers, declare them as sacred and sacrosanct as the political freedoms of speech, press, religion, and assembly.”

He then listed “four essential economic freedoms . . . the freedom to work . . . the freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor . . . the freedom to own and control one’s property . . .” and “the freedom to participate in a free market.” These are real “economic” rights to do, not those economic results which FDR addressed with the same title, an Economic Bill of Rights, in 1944.

Though Reagan had many times laid out the problem — that government was the problem – this time, we elegantly described it thusly, as it relates to the economy, “Just as Jefferson understood that our political freedoms needed protection by and from government, our economic freedoms need similar recognition and protection.” To this day we have not developed these principles enough to get them into the minds and hearts of regular voters.

Considering his legacy, Reagan again aligns himself with Jefferson’s 1798 sentiments, “I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. . . . I mean an additional article taking from the Federal Government the power of borrowing.”

So Reagan states his case for a “balanced budget amendment.” He threatened that “if the Congress will not act, I’ll have no choice but to take my case directly to the States.”

In some of his most harsh language, he described “Taxation” as “more than mathematical calculations. It is the harnessing of free people; it is forced labor; and if it goes beyond reasonable bounds, it is a yoke of oppression.”

Juxtaposed with this problem, is his inspirational reminder that, “All freedom is mutually reinforcing. Perhaps a more specific delineation of economic freedom was always needed, but today it’s imperative.” To tell the truth, he was right about the past – and the future – “more specific delineation of economic freedom” is needed, and now, “imperative.” If then, then now.

Wisely, Reagan cites Jefferson, in his first inaugural, comparing political protections with economic protections, “A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This,” he said, “is the sum of good government.”

Reagan often included humor to begin many of his public addresses. In this case he ended with another one. It bespeaks the chore before us, that we need to act, not sit and hope and watch. “A saying in colonial times suggested there are two ways to get to the top of an oak tree, where the view is much better. One is to climb; the other is to find an acorn and sit on it. [Laughter] Well, I didn’t come to Washington to sit on acorns. [Laughter] It’s time to roll up our sleeves and start climbing.”

He closes, “Adams was right. . . . through our deeds and actions, [we will] ensure that this country remains a bastion of freedom, the last best hope for mankind. As long as a love of liberty is emblazoned on our hearts, Jefferson lives.”

Click here to see the full transcript of this important speech.

Please see below for key excerpts.

A PHILOSOPHICAL REVOLUTION

It is this love of liberty, at the heart of our national identity, that separates our celebration of independence from those of most other nations. It’s what made the struggle of our forefathers, a little over 200 years ago, different from any conflict that has ever happened before. Down through history, there have been many revolutions, but virtually all of them only exchanged one set of rulers for another set of rulers. Ours was the only truly philosophical revolution. It declared that government would have only those powers granted to it by the people. . . .

NO BLIND NATIONALISM

Let no one charge, however, that ours is blind nationalism. We do not hide our shortcomings. Yes, we have our imperfections, but there are no people on this planet who have more reason to hold their heads high than do the citizens of the United States of America. . . .

AMERICA REMAINS THE GREATEST FORCE FOR HUMAN FREEDOM

The United States of America remains the greatest force for human freedom on this planet, and we’re darn proud of it. . . .

Freedom is not created by government, nor is it a gift from those in political power. It is, in fact, secured, more than anything else, by those limitations I mentioned that are placed on those in government. . . .

ECONOMIC FREEDOMS

Inextricably linked to these political freedoms are protections for the economic freedoms envisioned by those Americans who went before us. While the Constitution sets our political freedoms in greater detail, these economic freedoms are part and parcel of it. During this bicentennial year, we have the opportunity to recognize anew the economic freedoms of our people and, with the Founding Fathers, declare them as sacred and sacrosanct as the political freedoms of speech, press, religion, and assembly. There are four essential economic freedoms. . . .

First is the freedom to work — to pursue one’s livelihood in one’s own way, to choose where one will locate and what one will do to sustain individual and family needs and desires. . . .

Well, second of those freedoms is the freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor — to keep for oneself and one’s family the profit or gain earned by honest effort.

Third is the freedom to own and control one’s property — to trade or exchange it and not to have it taken through threat or coercion.

Fourth is the freedom to participate in a free market — to contract freely for goods and services and to achieve one’s full potential without government limits on opportunity, economic independence, and growth.

ECONOMIC FREEDOMS NEED RECOGNITION AND PROTECTION

Just as Jefferson understood that our political freedoms needed protection by and from government, our economic freedoms need similar recognition and protection. . . .

Now, in the same vein, regulation of an individual’s business or property can reach a degree when ownership is nullified and the value is taken. . . . Property rights are central to liberty and should never be trampled upon. . . .

BALANCED BUDGET AMENDMENT

I’m certain if Thomas Jefferson were here, he’d be one of the most articulate and aggressive champions of this cause. The reason I’m certain is that in 1798 he wrote: “I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government to the genuine principles of its Constitution; I mean an additional article taking from the Federal Government the power of borrowing.”

The centerpiece of the Economic Bill of Rights, the policy initiative we launch today, is a long-overdue constitutional amendment to require the Federal Government to do what every family in America must do, and that is live within its means and balance its budget. I will again ask Congress to submit a balanced budget amendment to the States. And if the Congress will not act, I’ll have no choice but to take my case directly to the States. . . .

TAXATION IS FORCED LABOR, A YOKE OF OPPRESSION

Taxation, for example, is more than mathematical calculations. It is the harnessing of free people; it is forced labor; and if it goes beyond reasonable bounds, it is a yoke of oppression. Raising taxes, then, should be serious business. It should not be done without a broad national consensus. We propose that every American’s paycheck be protected — as part of a balanced budget amendment — by requiring that tax increases must be passed by both Houses of Congress by more than a mere majority of their Members. . . .

#1 REDUCE SIZE AND SCOPE OF FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

We offer two approaches to turning the situation around, both encompassed in our proposals. One is to reduce the size and scope of the Federal Government. This is an ongoing battle. We will be relentless in steadily reducing spending until a balanced budget is achieved. . . .

#2 STRUCTURAL AND PROCEDURAL REFORM

Now, the second thrust is structural and procedural reform. We propose changes that will ensure truth in spending by requiring every new program to meet this test: If congressional passage of a new program will require increased spending, it must be paid for at the same time, either with offsetting reductions in other programs or new revenues. . . .

LINE-ITEM VETO

And the President deserves the same tool for budgetary responsibility that is now in the hands of 43 Governors, a tool I used effectively as Governor of California — the line-item veto. . . .

ALL FREEDOM IS MUTUALLY REINFORCING

Standing here, with Jefferson looking over my shoulder, looking out at the Lincoln and the Washington Memorials and the White House straight ahead and, in the distance, the Capitol, one can’t but appreciate that all freedom is mutually reinforcing. Perhaps a more specific delineation of economic freedom was always needed, but today it’s imperative. . . .

FREE TO REGULATE THEIR OWN PURSUITS OF INDUSTRY

Jefferson, in his first inaugural, spoke for his countrymen when he said: “A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This,” he said, “is the sum of good government.” . . .

A VISION OF LIMITED GOVERNMENT AND UNLIMITED OPPORTUNITY

Ours is a vision of limited government and unlimited opportunity, of growth and progress beyond what any can see today. A saying in colonial times suggested there are two ways to get to the top of an oak tree, where the view is much better. One is to climb; the other is to find an acorn and sit on it. [Laughter] Well, I didn’t come to Washington to sit on acorns. [Laughter] It’s time to roll up our sleeves and start climbing. . . .

Adams was right. All of us stand in tribute to the truth of those words. We proclaim it again and again with our dedication to keeping this a land of liberty and justice for all, and through our deeds and actions, to ensure that this country remains a bastion of freedom, the last best hope for mankind. As long as a love of liberty is emblazoned on our hearts, Jefferson lives.