Buddy, can you spare $250 billion?

October 14, 2008: 11:14 AM ET

When the Founders got together to establish this great Republic of ours, they had certain clear goals in mind. Here they are:

  • form a more perfect Union,
  • establish Justice,
  • insure domestic Tranquility,
  • provide for the common defense,
  • promote the general Welfare,
  • and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

Throughout our history, this vision of what government should do has changed, grown and shrunk depending on the level of heart, spleen or brains any given generation of the ruling class has under their wigs, vests or pinstripes.

For instance, back in the 19th Century, "promoting the general welfare" might very well have meant keeping the poor locked up in houses especially designed to keep them off the streets, and to start children working at jobs that stunted their growth by the age of eight.

We don't do that any more, pretty much. Since the 1930s, it's been pretty much the common assumption among decent Americans that it's better to provide a safety net for people, that no matter what philosophical universe you inhabit it's not good for children to go to bed hungry or to have the poor parts of town burn down every ten years or so.

Same for old people. They tend to need more medical care than others, so Government provided a program to make sure that when they get sick they don't have to wander around with a tin cup and cane pretending to be blind like they used to do.

Education, too. At some point a while back, it became clear that not everybody could afford to send their kids to private school, so somebody got the idea of creating schools that anybody could go to for free. We all pay for them, of course, some of us more willingly than others, in the form of taxes.

And forget about the whole "provide for the common defense" thing. The Government could probably provide every single one of us with a nice Z3 Roadster if we didn't have to do that.

As society grows and changes, then, our idea of the proper role of Government -- what it needs to do to protect the needy, the weak, the powerless, the downtrodden, the huddled masses and their friends -- mutates and shifts along with it.

Today we can add another group to the list of those who require intercession by We the People: Big Banks that have mismanaged the deposits entrusted to them by their customers. Two hundred and fifty billion dollars to once-proud burghers like Citigroup (C), Goldman Sachs (GS), Bank of America (BAC) and JP Morgan Chase (JPM). It seems like a small price to pay to make sure that none of these banks go hungry, or are forced to spend a night on the streets begging for the price of a martini -- which can go as high as $20 in many major cities.

Many of us complain about Government and how it's gotten too big, or intrudes too much on the free markets that we love so much. Now many of those who have complained the loudest are breathing a sigh of relief that Uncle Sam has once again opened his heart and his pockets to them in their time of need.

They're first right now in the big breadline.  Let's hope they leave a few crumbs for the rest of those who need a bit of a hand now and then.

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