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Constitution: Who cares?

By W. James Antle III
web posted January 28, 2002

It goes without saying among the few of us who care about such things that the United States has veered off track from the constitutional republic envisioned by its Founders. From a system of limited government, where the federal government had a few defined powers expressly delegated by the Constitution with the remainder left to the states, we have morphed into a regime under which the federal government defines its own powers and progressively turns the states into its own administrative units.

So the question is: Why do so few people care?

Part of the answer is monumental constitutional ignorance. People don't seem to understand that the Constitution is supposed to limit government, not just establish procedures by which the government operates. It says that the president must be at least 35 years of age and native-born, but it also contains a Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms that the federal government must not infringe upon. It enumerates the specific powers of the central government. The average American simply has no idea what the Constitution says or does.

Of course, it has long been the case that the Constitution was too radical for the American people. For a number of years, polls have shown majorities opposing protections afforded by the Bill of Rights when they were not identified as such. This doesn't even include the Tenth Amendment, but amendments that are ostensibly popular among liberals such as the First and the Fourth. So it isn't clear that a majority of Americans would support the Constitution even if they understood it.

This is tragic, because apart from constitutional government there is no basis for lawful government. In order for the law to act as a shield and not a weapon, the lawmakers cannot be a law unto themselves. We are devolving to precisely that point.

After all, we argue for and against various government spending programs or adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare on the alleged merits of these proposals. Nobody bothers to ask whether any of these proposals are constitutional. Those who support them are never challenged to show where in the Constitution the federal government specifically received its authorization to intrude in that area. The columnist Joe Sobran has quipped that anything called a "program" is unconstitutional.

Constitutional conservatives don't always help their own cause. The reality is that while a government unconstrained by the Constitution is in principle tyrannical, most Americans are still free to live their lives largely as they please. So talk about our tyrannical government produces nods of agreement from true believers, but causes the average voter to roll their eyes. Rather than educating people about the Constitution, many constitutionalists would rather reinforce "black helicopter" and "tinfoil hat" stereotypes and drive soccer moms into the arms of Hillary Clinton.

Yes, horrible things happened at Waco and Ruby Ridge at the hands of the federal government. But most Americans don't identify with lunatics who believe they are Jesus Christ and start bizarre religious cults. Nor do they identify with nutty white separatists who want to isolate themselves from modernity. This does not mean that any of these people deserved to die. What it does mean is that Joe Average is not going to look at the burning compound in Waco on TV and say, "Wow, those people were so much like me, I fear that I could be next." Sure, some pretty awful things have happened to fairly ordinary people on account of the drug war, but by and large, the federal government hasn't given ordinary people much of a reason to worry.

Most people live in nice homes and enjoy a nice standard of living. They are free to go to school where they want, work where and what profession they want, live where they want, marry who they want, etc. Millions of Americans no longer even pay income taxes. The federal government doesn't significantly impede them in anyway. Once in a while somebody forgets to pay their income taxes, or runs afoul of racial quotas, or has their livelihood ruined by some regulation like the farmers of Klamath Falls. But it doesn't happen to enough people to spark much of a popular uprising the way inflation-induced "bracket creep" did 20 years ago.

A welfare state is not this writer's idea of a free society, but it is a great deal freer than totalitarianism. The difference between the two is as great as the difference between Bill Clinton and Joseph Stalin. People who can't tell this difference are why advocates of limited government get tarred as alarmists and nutcases.

Of course, some of the power gained by the federal government has not actually led to a net increase in government power over citizens' lives. The Constitution limited the federal government, but did not originally offer any protections against the depredations of state governments, which were still free (subject to their own constitutions) to establish churches, knock people's doors down and otherwise deny their rights. Some of the powers the federal government has gained resulted from curbing anti-freedom policies enacted at the state level.

The fact that Americans still enjoy a greater degree of freedom than most of the rest of the world does not mean that concerns about unconstitutional government are unwarranted. Just because we have retained our freedoms after the limits on government were uprooted doesn't mean that unlimited government will never be exploited for evil means.

Some people suggest secession as a means of combating big government that doesn't respect the Constitution. In principle, secession is a valid tool for escaping a rapacious central government. But who is going to secede from what? It is not as if there is one constitutionally pure section of the country that is being oppressed by another. The American people have democratically chosen to go down the path of big government, North, South, East and West. The differences are only in degree.

Life is really good in the United States. The downside is, while preserving the Constitution may keep it that way, things being so good make it more difficult to make that case. Yet it is important to understand why this is so rather than make all kinds of proclamations that insure that constitutionalism will simply be ignored.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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