If Barack Obama is elected president on Nov. 4, and current polling suggests that is the case, he will come into office with something few presidents get and all envy: both houses of Congress controlled by his own party. With Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the helm in the House, and Majority Leader Harry Reid presiding over what may be a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Obama, Pelosi and Reid will be able to fundamentally change the size, nature and scope of government.

This doesn’t just sit well with Joe the Plumber, who worries that Sen. Obama’s plan will take away some of his hard-earned money so government can spread it around, but also goes against the beliefs of Founding Fathers like Benjamin Franklin, according to Brian F. Carso, Jr., Ph.D., a political historian and an assistant professor of history and director of the pre-law program at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.

Ronald Reagan’s domestic legacy, says Carso, was a shift away from reliance on big government. “In this present crisis,” he declared in his first inaugural address, “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.”   Reagan fought to reverse the creeping growth of big government, knowing how vastly inefficient it is. When citizens look first to government to fulfill their needs and desires, the entrepreneurial spirit is weakened and individual initiative and self-reliance, the stuff that motivates Joe the Plumber,  is unrewarded, according to Carso. 

Carso points to Franklin’s “Autobiography’’ to make his case against big government (though presumably only Obama's kind, since government spending also swelled under a Republican Congress and President) - in it, Franklin delivers the first literary rendition of the American Dream. In one of the greatest scenes in American literature, Franklin arrives at the port of Philadelphia and stands at the foot of Walnut Street, a mere teenager with nothing but some extra clothes stuffed in his pockets and a few loaves of bread. Aided only by his wits and initiative, he is about to embark on the journey of becoming ...well, Benjamin Franklin, the world’s most famous American.

How does Franklin do it? He tells us he lived according to a list of 13 virtues which he believed would lead him to success. Virtues like Frugality (“make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; waste nothing’’), Industry (“be always employed in something useful’’) and Resolution (“resolve to perform what you ought, perform without fail what you resolve’’). If the chairman of the House Banking Committee or the CEO of Fannie Mae had taken these simple virtues seriously, we might have avoided much of our current economic conundrum.

For Franklin, the root of society’s well-being lies in the virtue of individual citizens, but it does not stop there. Franklin worked throughout his life to elevate these virtues from individual habits to civic institutions. He created the first public library to give citizens equal opportunity at self-improvement. He founded an “Academy”— today we call it the University of Pennsylvania — so that young Americans might become “distinguished by their improv’d abilities, serviceable in public stations, and ornaments to their country.” He developed plans to pave roads and light streets at night for the singular purpose of allowing people to go about their good industrious labors with greater efficiency.

In the 218 years since Franklin’s death, some of what we do has become increasingly complicated — financial institutions, for instance, or big government. But make no mistake: the foundation of any society is, and always has been, the industry and diligence of individuals. Franklin tirelessly advocated for equal opportunity, but he knew the folly of promising equality of outcome. What you get out of life is ultimately up to you.

Carso says if we insist on increasing the size and scope of government involvement in our daily lives, we should take care that big government doesn’t jeopardize the virtues of discipline and self-reliance. We should not think ourselves so smart that we can socially engineer basic human motivations. Nobody was smarter than Benjamin Franklin, and he found the greatest value in these simple virtues.

Franklin wrote a remembrance of his parents, inscribed on their gravestone which still stands in Boston. Married for 55 years, he explains, they were born poor and worked at ordinary jobs, but “through constant labor and industry” they provided a comfortable life for their large family. “From this instance, Reader,” Franklin adds, “be encouraged to Diligence in thy calling.”

Carso feels that expanded government will do the opposite — it will discourage diligence and hard work. To be sure, there is a proper place for good, smart government.  Whoever wins in November, they should listen carefully to the simple yet insightful messages of Benjamin Franklin.