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The Right's "Limited Government" Scam

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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In essence, the old alliance of convenience between Southern segregationists and Wall Street financial interests was rekindled and began building a propaganda infrastructure to persuade other Americans that the federal government was evil and had to be fought.

As part of that propaganda effort, wealthy right-wingers, like the Koch Brothers, invested heavily in think tanks and academic institutions where "scholars" cherry-picked quotes from key Framers, particularly Madison, to distort the history surrounding the Constitution. This false history was then packaged and sold to ill-informed Tea Party types who fancied themselves as channeling the anti-government passions of the Founders.

For instance, one right-wing canard about the Second Amendment is that the Framers wanted an armed citizenry so the people could go to war with the government to protect individual liberties. The reality, of course, was entirely different. Aristocrats like Madison and Washington wanted armed militias so the government could maintain order in the face of disruptions like Shays' Rebellion as well as to resist Native Americans on the frontiers and to put down slave revolts.

The federal response to the Whiskey Rebellion, which erupted in western Pennsylvania in 1791, revealed this chief idea behind "a well-regulated militia" as cited in the Second Amendment. In 1792, shortly after the Bill of Rights was ratified, Congress passed the Militia Acts requiring all military-age white males to obtain their own muskets and equipment for service in militias.

In 1794, President Washington, who was determined to demonstrate the young government's resolve, led a combined force of state militias against the Whiskey rebels. Their anti-tax revolt soon collapsed and order was restored. In other words, the key purpose of the Second Amendment was to help the government maintain "security," as the Amendment says, not to promote disorder.

But the Right's false narratives are not simply historical fantasies. For the last several decades, they have been powerful political instruments enabling neo-Confederates in the South and Ayn Rand libertarians in the North to redirect the United States onto a path of anti-government fanaticism, a craziness that let Wall Street run wild and has put devastating weapons in the hands of mentally unstable individuals.

This misleading notion that only libertarians and Tea Partiers care about -- and should be allowed to define -- how the Framers understood "limited government" has led the nation into George W. Bush's Great Recession and the recent school-shooting tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.

So, while it's true that the Framers -- like almost every American then and now -- believed in "limited government," it's wrong to assume that they were anti-government ideologues who would have stood by and done nothing while six-year-olds were being mass-murdered.

The key Framers -- the likes of Washington and Madison -- could best be described as pragmatic nationalists. They wanted a strong central government because one was needed to protect the country's hard-won independence.

Another inconvenient truth that the Right would rather people not recognize is that the Framers included in both the Constitution's Preamble and among the "enumerated powers" of Congress in Article I that a top responsibility of the federal government was to provide for the "general Welfare of the United States."

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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