Priorities, and Principles
By Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson
Center for Vision and Values
Grove City College
As the Twin Cities
struggle to return to normalcy in the aftermath
of the collapse of the bridge along I-35, we will
be subjected to the unseemly spectacle of politicians
pointing fingers at each other. I am not interested
in this political soap opera, but rather in the
larger lessons we can learn from this tragedy.
In reviewing some notes I made in the early 1980s,
our country’s infrastructure — roads,
bridges, dams, sewers, subways, waterways, etc.
— was considered to be in such poor shape
(even way back then) that it was projected to cost
$2.5 trillion (about $5 trillion in today’s
prices) to make the necessary repairs and maintenance.
More than two decades later, in 2005, the American
Society of Civil Engineers gave our country’s
infrastructure an overall grade of “D,”
with not a single individual component (e.g., bridges)
earning a grade above “C+.” Now, an
important bridge — a part of the crown jewel
of our national road network, the Interstate Highway
System — has crumbled into the Mississippi
1. Although the problem has been known for a long
time, it hasn’t been adequately addressed.
Since government has jurisdiction over public infrastructure,
what we have here is a failure of government.
Since government has spent many multiples of $2.5
trillion in the last 25 years without fixing our
infrastructure, government must have had other priorities
for its prodigious spending.
It would take many pages to list those “other
priorities,” so let us instead examine the
fundamental question: What should be government’s
Our Founding Fathers addressed this very question.
As keen students of history, they understood that
the bigger government grew (i.e., the more power
and control it exercised) the more the people under
it ultimately suffered. That is why the Constitution
of the United States enumerated very few specific
powers and duties for the federal government.
The primary foundational principle of the Constitution
was encapsulated in the phrase “promote the
general Welfare” in the Constitution’s
preamble. To the framers of the Constitution, “promote
the general Welfare” meant that Uncle Sam
would perform only those functions from which all
citizens could benefit. The adjective “general”
was used in clear contradistinction to “special,”
as in “special interests.” Thus, the
federal government would be entrusted with protecting
the territorial integrity of the United States,
since all Americans would be the presumed beneficiaries
of protection from attack and invasion. A common
standard of laws, weights, measures, sound money,
and policies facilitating interstate commerce—again,
functions that could help everyone without partiality—were
It was inconceivable to the founders that the federal
government would bestow grants or subsidies to particular
kinds of businesses or particular categories of
citizens (e.g., seniors, college students, the unemployed,
etc., etc.). Today’s government, by parceling
out favors to multiple special interests, is in
the full-time business of bestowing privileges.
Privileges (a word derived from two Latin words
meaning “private laws”) are the antithesis,
the repudiation, of the rule of law—the biblical
principle that all are equal before the law—which
our founders cherished and then codified in our
“Well look, Hendrickson,” the critics
reply, “the founders are ancient history,
and times have changed.” Indeed, times have
changed. Government has grown into a leviathan,
trying to be all things to all people. Craven politicians
buy votes and campaign contributions with other
people’s money. Contemporary government has
taken on 20 kajillion tasks, rather than concentrating
on the handful of basic tasks that a government
dedicated to promoting the general welfare would
perform. And what are the results? A government
that spends beyond it means, stretches itself too
thin, and fails miserably to discharge some of its
primary responsibilities. Is that what you want
— a government that is the world’s largest
debtor, yet fails to perform basic functions, such
as controlling who comes into our country and keeping
its infrastructure from falling apart?
If you think Big Government is the answer to our
problems, I respectfully request that you reconsider.
The government retirement program — Social
Security — isn’t adequately funded and
will give today’s workers a lower rate of
return than a private annuity would provide. Government
health-care entitlements have inflated medical costs
enormously, and the unfunded liabilities of these
programs will bankrupt the government within a few
decades. Government spending on education has soared,
even though there is no correlation between dollars
spent per pupil and educational achievement. In
short, on what basis can anyone make a strong case
for government competence?
Personally, I have reservations about government
being in charge of building our roads. But since
government has that authority, let’s hope
that our politicians contract out infrastructure
building and maintenance projects to private firms
through graft-free, competitive bidding.
The fallen bridge in Minnesota is telling us loud
and clear that it’s time to get our priorities
back in order. I can think of no better guideline
for how to determine our priorities than the principles
of law and government that are embodied in our Constitution.