Sunday, March 24, 2013

Why the Constitution Matters

In the endless name-calling and emotionalism that characterize our national “conversation” about the role of guns in our culture, we generally seem to be talking past one another.  Those horrified by the outbursts of mass murder like those at Newtown and Aurora are motivated by a determination to eliminate future incidents like these.  Those defending gun ownership rights are motivated by a determination to prevent an erosion of constitutional guarantees.  These differing points of view were on display in the recent exchange between Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) regarding Sen. Feinstein’s proposal to ban “assault weapons.”

Here Sen. Cruz focuses on constitutional rights, while Sen. Feinstein focuses on the human cost of murderous gun users.  Those proposing tighter gun controls administered by the state always pay homage to the Constitution; those resisting these proposals always acknowledge the bloody toll guns can levy.

What drives both positions is respectable and defensible.  But as a matter of public policy they are not both based upon our founding principles, and that is all the difference.

Liberals and other adherents to the Church of the All Powerful State no longer subscribe to those founding principles, which are stated in the Declaration of Independence and enacted with respect to the institutions of government in the Constitution.  Instead they have come to believe that the purpose of government is to “help people,” and so they seek to make the words and articles of the Constitution conform to this heterodox philosophy.

The founders believed that God, not man, was the source of all human rights and responsibilities.  Thus “all men are created equal . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [which include] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Because each human is equal in God’s eyes, no one of us can have more or less sovereignty as citizens.  Government’s role is to “secure these rights,” and it can only “deriv[e] [its] just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Establishing such a government took two tries.  The first, set up under the Articles of Confederation, was crafted to drastically limit its powers to preclude a return to the tyranny the Americans had just thrown off; it turned out to be too weak to actually secure the natural rights of the citizens.  So we tried again, and with the ratification of the Constitution between 1787 and 1790, we founded a government with the right balance of powers to “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.”

The Constitution was carefully designed to grant the federal government only those powers explicitly spelled out in its pages.  The 9th and 10th amendments—key elements of the Bill of Rights—emphasized this.  “Enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The actions of the Americans from the First Continental Congress in 1774 through the inauguration of George Washington in 1789 were such a break with human historical evolution that it is exceedingly difficult for us in our current gilded age to appreciate its radical nature.  For the first time in history a nation was founded not on ethnic identity, not on royal prerogative, not on religious piety, but on a new idea concerning the nature of man. 

For the founders, a human being is first and foremost a sovereign; as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his essay Self Reliance, “The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”  America would be a nation of individuals creating their own lives; they would have a government that facilitated this while preserving law and order.  They were willing and eager to live by their own wits, and until the Civil War their government had only a distant and feeble impact on their choices.

But the Civil War ushered in a new element: industrialization.  The unprecedented expansion of wealth unleashed by the industrialization of America after 1865 also rearranged the concentrations of political power.  In states where manufacturing thrived, the owners of these “means of production” acquired new political influence.  In the South, absorption of the 4 million freedmen put an extraordinary strain on society.  All of these changes dramatically altered the United States, and introduced new political dynamics.

The Progressive Detour

One of these was the Progressive movement, begun after the Civil War by factions of both major parties justly unhappy with what must have appeared to them as the social and economic upheavals of the Gilded Age

This period demonstrated quite starkly the dynamics of capitalism.  Production of major capital equipment and infrastructure for mining, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing required enormous amounts of capital investment.  At the same time, boom-bust cycles not only became more pronounced, but had devastating effects on various sectors of the political economy.   Protecting these investments from both the political and financial fallout of these events led owners and investors to bend the instruments of government towards defending their interests. 

Reaction to this new concentration and manipulation of power began almost as soon as it began to make its presence known.  The Grange movement in the farm belt states, frightened by the Panic of 1873, turned political; its targets were banks and railroads, which its members blamed for low prices and mounting indebtedness.  Farm-based resistance to the new political geometry underwent a number of permutations; by 1892 the presidential candidate of the Grange’s successor party, the Populists, received 22 electoral votes from four states.

In the meantime, what became known as the Progressive Movement was also gathering strength as a reaction to various corrupt political machines in major urban areas.  By 1896, many of the assorted streams of progressive activism rallied to secure the nomination of William Jennings Bryan as the Democratic Party candidate for president. 

When Theodore Roosevelt became president after William McKinley’s assassination in 1901, he too began to move toward progressive policies.  It was Roosevelt who first introduced unprecedented federal regulation of various private sector businesses, including pure food, drug, and meat inspection laws, government “supervision” of insurance companies, investigation of child labor conditions, employer liability laws for Washington, D.C., and—of the highest priority—a law giving the Interstate Commerce Commission power to regulate railroad shipping rates.

In the meantime Bryan twice more won the Democratic presidential nomination; in 1912 he threw his weight behind New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, who won the November election after Roosevelt split from the Republican Party to run on the Bull Moose ticket.

Thus progressive policies found their way into the governing philosophy of a significant number of Americans.  The founding belief of the progressives is that government’s role is to help ordinary people against their wealthier fellow citizens, who are a greater threat than government.  The world of Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman gentry imperiled by royal or majoritarian tyranny has given way to a complicated, fast-paced, crazy world where the freedoms of the average citizen are under threats from other citizens that the Founders could not foresee.

At first the Progressives tried amending the Constitution in an attempt to restructure our governance to meet the new conditions.  The four progressive amendments 16 through 19, all ratified during Wilson’s presidency, tinkered at the edges and so failed to supplant the original small government restricted only to enumerated powers with a more powerful regime that could more directly address the nation’s new problems.  The majority of Americans were not yet progressives.

And so a more indirect attack against our founding principles was launched, using academia and later on the courts to rewrite the Constitution without actually changing its provisions.  Woodrow Wilson was a central figure in this reinterpretation.  As Jonah Goldberg writes in Liberal Fascism,
Wilson’s view of politics could be summarized by the word “statolatry,” or state worship (the same sin with which the Vatican charged Mussolini).  Wilson believed that the state was a natural, organic, and spiritual expression of the people themselves.  From the outset, he believed that the government and people should have an organic bond that reflected the “true spirit” of the people, or what the Germans called the Volksgeist.  “Government is not a machine, but a living thing,” he wrote in Congressional Government.  “It falls not under the [Newtonian] theory of the universe, but under the [Darwinian] theory of organic life.”  From this perspective, the ever-expanding power of the state was entirely natural.  Wilson, along with the vast majority of progressive intellectuals, believed that the increase in state power was akin to an inevitable evolutionary process.  Governmental “experimentation,” the watchword of pragmatic liberals from [John] Dewey and Wilson to FDR, was the social analogue to evolutionary adaptation.  Constitutional democracy, as the founders understood it, was a momentary phase in this progression.  Now it was time for the state to ascend to the next plateau.  “Government,” Wilson wrote approvingly in The State, “does now whatever experience permits or the times demand.”  Wilson was the first president to speak disparagingly of the Constitution.

Wilson reinforced such attitudes by attacking the very idea of natural and individual rights.  If the original, authentic state was a dictatorial family, Wilson argued in the spirit of Darwin, what historical basis was there to believe in individual rights?  “No doubt,” he wrote, taking dead aim at the Declaration of Independence, “a lot of nonsense has been talked about inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle.  If a law couldn’t be executed, it wasn’t a real law, according to Wilson, and “abstract rights” were vexingly difficult to execute.
“Government does now whatever experience permits or the times demand.”  Here in a single sentence is the governing philosophy of the progressives; a century later the heirs of Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt would alter not a single word.  It is, in the words of a friend of the Recovering Bureaucrat, a belief in "adhocracy" over fundamental and timeless principles.

And thus we come back around to the gun debate.  If one believes with Sen. Feinstein that government can do “whatever experience permits or the times demand,” then finding ways to restrict gun ownership or usage is naturally within the purview of the federal government.  Those who assume this constitutional creed are comfortable with advancing utilitarian arguments.  “Who needs a semi-automatic to kill a deer,” or “how many guns does an individual require for self-protection?” are compelling questions to them.

Notice that none of the acolytes of the Church of the All Powerful State bother to call for repeal of the 2nd Amendment.  This would actually accomplish their real goals.  But their century-long tinkering with the meaning of the Constitution’s words and articles has engendered a plasticity of thought that renders meaning dependent on mere worldview.  (This is the source of relentless leftist assaults on the “originalism” of Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.)  Why bother going through the built-in difficulty of amending the Constitution when you can render its meaning null and void through the courts and the MSM?  Since the "adhocracy" established by the Court majority in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Left assumes that its desired meaning will always reside in "penumbras and emanations" given off by the Constitution's text that only they can discern.

For them, the need to amend the Constitution is now an anachronism.

The Superiority of the American Constitution as the Founders Intended

This assumption is corrosive to the radical new governance that the founding generation of Americans created.  By insisting on a constitutional rule of law underwritten by the consent of the governed who are the sole originators of governmental legitimacy, they established a superior political structure that has encouraged human creativity, striving, investment, production, and education far beyond anything produced anywhere else in the world.  America’s leading position in any number of economic, cultural, or technological categories is a direct result of its constitutional restraint of the ever-expanding “living” government assumed by Woodrow Wilson and his 21st century heirs.

It is ironic but lawfully human that our founders' revolutionary departure from the governing philosophies and realities choking the world of their day is now threatened by a new form of the same tyrannical disdain for the people that kings, oligarchs, and dictators have always displayed.   All desire for control ultimately springs from fear, fear that without applying that control the future will be worse than today.  And since all humans are subject to this natural fear, we can appreciate all the more the courage and farsightedness of the founders.  Theirs was a vote for hope over fear.

The price of freedom will always be excess and license.  The ability of nut cases to use guns to kill dozens of people is an unfortunate outcome of a society that reserves all rights to its citizens except those explicitly granted to government.  The fact that free individuals choose to become murderers regardless of the instruments they use to commit their foul crimes is the salient point.  Freedom cannot be controlled; it can only be educated.

But when we focus on the bad, we too often also overlook the good.  Because the value of that investment in freedom also includes a standard of living unprecedented in human history, an open society that embraces diversity and quirkiness, an environment of unrestricted inquiry and invention, and a place to live that is highly secure from foreign intrusion.

Sen. Cruz’ questions to Sen. Feinstein drew the necessary distinction between the progressive mindset and our founding principles.  It is instructive that the progressives tend to be defensive when questioned about their motivations and presumptions.  Can it be that they know somewhere in their heart of hearts that they have got it wrong?  Can it be that somewhere in their subconscious they know their way of thinking is a major cause of America's decline?

Nonetheless, the rest of us cannot be satisfied with our opponents’ psychological discomfort.  The world is changing faster than most people appreciate.  Conservatives must focus on the essentials: organizing to roll back the progressive overreach.  From Michael Bloomberg with his obsession to control New Yorkers’ diets to Barack Obama’s need to control our health care, all must be confronted with passion and ruthlessness.  The injunction is to master both our founding principles and Abraham Lincoln’s ability to articulate them for the present moment.

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