Most Americans would agree to a safety net for those who are unable to fend for themselves, writes guest columnist Bob Benze. But he argues they are increasingly rejecting the notion that there can somehow be a universal free lunch, including on health-care reform.

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THE health-care debate raised a fundamental question: Exactly what are the rights the citizens of the United States are entitled to under the Constitution?

An examination of the Constitution shows that the Founding Fathers were singularly concerned with limiting the power of the government to control and coerce its populace. They well understood there have always been people desiring power to control other people, with oppressive governments being the historic norm. Their goal was to put the people in charge, with a system of checks and balances to thwart “factions” that could take control of the levers of power.

The first 10 constitutional amendments, the Bill of Rights, were designed to guarantee people freedom from abuse by an overzealous government. Nothing more!

But in some circles there is another definition of rights — centered on the concept that the government is legally empowered to forcibly take the money that one person has earned and give it, in various forms, to someone who has not earned it — arguably for the common good.

For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights would have guaranteed everyone a job with a living wage; businesses would have freedom from unfair competition; everyone would have the right to a home, the right to medical care, the right to an education, and the right to recreation.

The means to achieve such noble goals invariably lies in social programs that allow the government to redistribute wealth — an idea especially appealing to intellectuals who have enjoyed ivory-tower protection from the real world.

The problem is that wherever “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” has been employed as public policy, it has failed dismally — dramatically illustrated in the differences between Western Europe and Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall came down.

Redistribution policy invariably destroys the monetary-reward incentive that drives potential employers and investors to take personal financial risk; and, conversely, marginalizes any incentive for people to work in gainful employment to fulfill their needs and desires when they realize they can get a free government ride.

The old Soviet joke “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work” describes the end game of such a system. Or, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

Today, in chasing this utopian vision, we are not only running out of our citizen’s money, we are fast spending the yet-to-be-earned resources of our children and grandchildren.

The national debt is $12 trillion. When the unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs, etc., are included, the total is a whopping $106 trillion — an obligation of $346,000 for every single citizen of the United States. This is not only unsustainable; it is wildly irresponsible, with the looming potential to bring the country to financial ruin.

Yet the Congress and the administration continue to spend like drunken sailors on all the new rights they have found, that they claim people need and want. Why? Lord Acton understood it perfectly when he said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

But the American people are waking up to the fact that there is something fundamentally wrong with massive wealth-redistribution programs like the health-care bills currently in Congress. Most would agree to a safety net for those who are unable to fend for themselves, but they are increasingly rejecting the notion that there can somehow be a universal free lunch.

The government our nation’s Founding Fathers devised worked. Our government today doesn’t.

Bob Benze of Silverdale serves on the executive board of the Kitsap County Republican Party and on the board of directors of the Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners.