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The Constitution of the United States and Its Usurpation

One of the more over-used claims I have heard in my lifetime, is how this condition or that somehow violates someone's rights. The U.S. is a great country, in my opinion the very best, but we have waaaaaaaaaaaaay too many lawsuits, not to mention protests against just about everything. We read, see, and hear about 'Animal Rights' (not to mention that a certain Obama Administration official once wanted trees to have legal standing to file lawsuits), 'Right to Life' vs. "Woman's Right to Choose', 'Right to Die', and the popular meme of the moment, the 'Right' to Healthcare.

There are, it seems, three common sources for the notion of enumerated rights; the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the popular imagination. The key phrase from the Declaration of Independence is that line about "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"; while some folks try to draw inferences that government should be providing these things to people, I would remind the audience that when this document was written, the theme and tone were to tell the extant government - Britain, King George III and Parliament - where they could go and with what accessories. The Declaration of Independence was in no way an endorsement of government power and influence.

The Constitution of the United States is where most people come to think of rights, yet many beliefs are mistaken. The founding fathers, for instance, have made it abundantly clear not only in the text of the Constitution but in other writings of the time that the Constitution was created not to spell out the rights of the people, but to define the limits of the federal government's power. The Bill of Rights was noted not to lay out what the citizens were allowed to do, but to emphasize certain boundaries which the government may under no circumstances trample. From that original context, therefore, it is important to understand that "rights" come to mean areas where the government is not allowed to exert power or influence, even with the best of intentions. The legitimate power and authority of government extends only to that degree where the Constitution specifically grants that power and authority - sadly, the actual affairs of government have gone well beyond those limits, and it is doubtful that we shall ever again see the government truly envisioned by the founding fathers. We must make do with the reality in which we live.

The reality of the Constitution, is that it's really a very simple framework. Let's have a walk through the structure of the thing and I hope you will see what I mean:


"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

That sets out what we're doing. Union, Justice, Peace, Defense, Welfare, and Liberty are the goals. The rest of the Constitution lays out how these goals are to be accomplished.

Article I

Article I lays out the Congress of the United States, how it is created and how it shall operate. Section 8 is particularly important, setting out taxation, debt, commerce, naturalization of citizens, bankruptcy law, the treasury, post office and rail roads, patents and copyright, the establishment of courts, and the conduct and operation of the military, in that order.

Article II

Article II lays out the Executive Branch, the qualifications for President of the United States and how he/she may be elected. The Constitution clearly shows the President to be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, to have the right to make appointments and to recommend actions to Congress, and that he may be removed only by impeachment for "high crimes", such as Treason or Bribery. The President's role is clearly set out distinct from the role of Congress; the Congress is expected to deliberate and move slowly and with the deliberation appropriate to its great power, while the President is in a leadership role, so that he may move more quickly but with less effect than the Congress.

Article III

Article III sets out the judicial system, derived from the Supreme Court and - as the Constitution describes them - inferior courts. It is interesting that Section 1 specifically qualifies the right of any judge to sit on the bench to their "good behavior"; I cannot help but wonder how many of our esteemed honors would actually pass a reasonable examination to see whether in fact their behavior as judges could properly be called 'good'.

Article IV

Article IV gets into greater detail than the previous articles, addressing the rights of states to conduct their public acts with the confidence that other states will consider such acts as legitimate within their own jurisdiction to the degree that relations between those states are affected, the universal applicability of criminal law and civil judgments, the territory and boundaries of states, and the universal protection by the armed forces of each state from invasion or attack.

Article V

Article V sets out how amendments to the Constitution may be created and ratified. This plainly worded section is perhaps the most effective means by which the Constitution remains relevant.

Article VI

Article VI almost reads as an afterthought to the main body of the Constitution, but two points in this article are of paramount importance - the clear affirmation that the Constitution of the United States is the "supreme Law of the Land", which rather snuffs the notion that interpretation of foreign law should be considered anything close to equal in standing to the Constitution as written and ratified; and the direct admonition that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States", which is in actual fact the strongest clear statement of the separation of Church and State; note that this separation is effected in the conduct of public officials, not in the rights of private citizens.

- continued -

Article VII

Article VII sets out the ratification of the Constitution.

The Amendments

The twenty-seven Amendments to the Constitution of the United States are, to me anyway, a fascinating historical commentary on the enduring value and stability of the Constitution. It should be remembered, after all, that other nations had Constitutions which failed because they ignored them - the politicians in, for example, the Soviet Union ignored their Constitution whenever they felt like it, or - why does this sound familiar - decided whatever they wanted to do was actually allowed under the Constitution, even where specifically proscribed by the actual document. We see maddening debates over the meaning of the wording in various places, but at least our judges still consider the Constitution as the rule book on our laws.

The first ten amendments, of course, were created at the time of the original Constitution, and are collectively known as the Bill of Rights. It shows something of the concern by Mr. Madison and his colleagues, that even in a document which clearly set out to limit the scope and power of government, they determined it was necessary to enumerate specific rights which may not, under any circumstances, be abrogated. In short summary they are as follows:

1. Freedom of Speech
2. Right to Firearms
3. Quarters for Troops
4. Search and Seizure limits
5. Rights of the Accused
6. Criminal Prosecutions
7. The Right to Juries
8. The Right to Bail, limits on Punishment
9. The Bill of Rights does not list all rights of the people
10. Powers not specifically accorded the federal government by the Constitution belong to the states, or to the people

It gets interesting after that. The eleventh amendment addresses lawsuits against states, the twelfth concerns the election of the President and Vice-President, the thirteenth abolishes slavery, the fourteenth details due process rights, equal protection, and voting rights, the fifteenth prohibits racial discrimination of voting rights, the sixteenth establishes income tax, the seventeenth addresses the election of senators in more detail, the eighteenth banned alcoholic drinks, the nineteenth confirmed the right of women to vote, the twentieth addresses the succession of the President of the United States, the twenty-first repealed the eighteenth amendment, the twenty-second limits the President of the United States to two full terms of office, the twenty-third allows D.C. residents to vote in Presidential elections, the twenty-fourth bans the poll tax, the twenty-fifth details specific conditions for succession of the President, the twenty-sixth sets the voting age at 18 across the nation, and the twenty-seventh prohibits the Congress from voting on their pay more than once in a two-year period. From this, we can see that of the 17 amendments after the Bill of Rights, four address the actions and election of the President of the United States, eight address elections and voting rights, two clarify the operation of the federal government, two ban certain practices, one establishes a new power for the federal government, and one simply cancels a prior amendment.

The sum effect of the Constitution and its amendments, for me anyway, is that this is a simple framework meant to be applied in the spirit of limited government and maximum rights for individuals. From this spirit, it follows that individuals may do as they please, with the common sense restrictions that each of us is responsible for the effect of our actions upon others, and that as a member of our community we have obligations to promote its welfare. There is no right to a certain minimum number of years of life, nor to perfect health, no right to social networking or a secure job, nor to the exclusion of annoying people or discomfort, no right to guarantee that the police can solve every crime or the government solve your every worry.

Which brings us to that problem of imagination. Where did all those government programs come from, if our founding fathers did not hand over the authority to create them? In a word, sophistry. Consider the Louisiana Purchase, for example. While I agree that it was a great deal for the United States and a brilliant bit of strategy, it was also clearly unconstitutional. And what about Lincoln suspending the writ of Habeus Corpus during the Civil War? Many historians have argued persuasively that the action was necessary, but again there is no authority in the Constitution for President Lincoln to have done it. The New Deal? As grand as FDR described it and as proud as so many are of their work in those years, nowhere does the Constitution allow the President or the Congress to take over the commerce of the nation in order to try out political theory, as happened in the 1930s. And yes, that in turn makes the Bush and Obama attempts to do the same thing unconstitutional. Frankly, the very notion of borrowing huge amounts of taxpayer money for the benefit of selected companies and industries is so offensive that one imagines Hamilton and Franklin retching at the mere notion, not to mention its repetition in succeeding terms. It will, no doubt, be observed that many courts in the United States, including the Supreme Court, have signed off on these egregious violations of the limits of government, but one might remind such individuals that the courts have made myriad mistakes over the years, from Dred Scott to Plessy v Ferguson to Hepburn v Griswold to Everson to Roe v Wade to Grutter to Kelo v. New London and so on. To this, we must also note that when there is influence or power to be gained by advancing the breadth and grasp of the federal government, the Constitution fares badly throughout history, in courtrooms as much as the halls of Congress.

Many critics of the current proposals argue that we cannot afford them, but at some point it is bound to occur to the citizens of the United States that they never got to vote on these obscene orgies of spending, that the hateful practice of 'taxation without representation' is in full effect in the modern world, and that in the end the only hope for the Republic is for its citizens to demand its return. The only right we have, in the end, is the right to take responsibility for our own condition and actions, and their consequence. The only proper role for government is to protect the citizens from enemies and continue the maintenance of infrastructure, but otherwise to shut up and get out of the way of those who do the real work at hand.


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Comments (40)

DJ, very good review. Come ... (Below threshold)

DJ, very good review. Come in handy at a time when we need it. My wife and I are hosting Constitution Party's so we can review and discuss our constitution. Thanks for this. ww

Just to be clear the consti... (Below threshold)
alecthemad Author Profile Page:

Just to be clear the constitution does allow suspension of habeus corpus.

"The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."

Under the limits of congress.

Couple quick notes:<p... (Below threshold)
James H:

Couple quick notes:

Some Founders opposed the Bill of Rights because they believed it would limit the rights accorded to the people.

Second, it's worth noting that the words in the Constitution and other amendments may very well have meant different things to different signatories. Ambiguity being deliberate, of course, in order to gain support.

One minor note, the second ... (Below threshold)
Don R Hunsinger:

One minor note, the second amendment is not just 'firearms' but 'arms' in general.

Best modern update of it would be "An ably armed citizenry, being neccessary to the security of a free Republic, the right of each individual person to keep and bear ARMS shall not be infringed".

I enjoyed this post, and ho... (Below threshold)

I enjoyed this post, and hope you didn't interpret my comment in that previous thread as a denigration of your Constitution. When organizing a nation of such a physically large and socially/politically diverse scope as the United States, the utility of having a foundational document is obvious.

Two things:

First: The Constitution of the United States is where most people come to think of rights, yet many beliefs are mistaken.

Maybe I just misunderstand this, but I don't know anyone who has a serious (academic) understanding of rights who would agree that they are conferred upon people by a nation; rather, robust recognition of universal human rights--including those that extend beyond the concerns of one nation's government--is the mark of an advanced nation. The Colonial people had rights before the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were drafted; the problem is, the British failed to recognize them.

Second thing: as for the role of government, I don't understand why you assume that providing for the common defence is the responsibility of government, but promoting the general welfare must be left to individuals. A government that (for example) promotes healthy living through public education does not limit the freedom of its constituents; rather, it emboldens it, for with greater welfare comes greater opportunity, and thus greater freedom in the most meaningful sense of the word. I don't see how this would run afoul of the Constitution--but it's quite possible that you aren't claiming that it would.

Hyperbolist, thanks for you... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Hyperbolist, thanks for your comment, it's just the kind of constructive discussion we all need.

The key lies in the definitions given to the words used. For instance, common defense says to me that the government has the duty to provide a force which defends our national borders and which responds to 'clear and present danger'. It does not, however, mean that the government should be expected to protect every citizen against every potential threat - for instance, it is reasonable for police to exist, but absurd to expect them to respond in an instant when someone is attacked. This is one reason for people carrying handguns, the acknowledgement that they must provide for their personal security in situations where the government cannot reasonably protect them. I expect the military to train to take on Al Qaeda, not home invasion gangs, and I expect the police to pursue and arrest criminals, not spy on my house to know what's going on every moment, on the excuse that this improves my safety.

As to the general welfare, here again we have to be clear about what we mean. I expect the government to make sure roads and bridges are safe, to test water and regulate companies which have monopolies, like my natural gas company. I do not, however, expect the government to choose my budget or allocate my savings to make sure I am going to the doctor in the schedule they think best, to choose what books my daughter reads or what foods she should eat. To me, general welfare does fall to the government but comes down to providing what individuals cannot reasonably provide for themselves.

There is no way we can eliminate every threat or risk, and anyone who's lived to adulthood knows this if they think about it. Even Volvos get into accidents, even non-flammable curtains sometimes burn, even healthy people eventually die of something. I have choices to make, and it's no one else's place to make them for me.

hyper...when you use the ph... (Below threshold)

hyper...when you use the phrase universal human rights, it concerns me. this phrase was concocted by activists on the left to mask their statism in the cloak of rights. what many of them consider to be "universal human rights" are nothing more than their vision of what a utopian society should look like. there is no basis in natural law or in the human condition for many of these so-called rights.

you also remark about he "serious (academic) understanding" of the source of rights. i gotta tell you that what average citizens believe and what academics believe are, usually, two entirely diffenent things.

as to your second point, i have three observations. the first is what do you consider the general welfare? if you consider the general welfare of the nation to mean that it is at peace and that it's citizens are able to live their lives as they will, without undue impact from the state, which is how i read that phrase, then, clearly, you are incorrect.

if by general welfare you mean the mental and physical health of the citizens, then you would be correct. but if you want to make that claim, i challenge you to provide contextual documentation to support that meaning of the phrase from the time of the writting of the constitution.

this is one of my biggest frustrations with statists and leftists. they look at a turn of phrase and twist it to mean what they want, rather than actually looking at what the person who voiced it meant at the time it was made.

secondly, i think that many would argue that the role of education provider belongs at the state or local level and not at the federal level. because it's not enumerated in the powers of the constitution, so it should therefore devolve upon the state or the individual.

and lastly, there is the matter of coersion. if the state forces all citizens to attend their schools, and then sets an educational program with a specific agenda that it forces all to learn, where is the greater freedom?

Good points ke_future. I al... (Below threshold)

Good points ke_future. I also have a problem with the full cabinet position of education. The money tied to it and how they use it to coerce schools to excepting standards that are more pro union then pro education. It was better when incorporated into the Department of Health,Education and Welfare.

I think if our citizenry actually studies the constitution they will realize how out of control our government has become and how far removed they are from the citizens they should protect. Thus the Constitution Party's. ww

Why someone gave you less t... (Below threshold)

Why someone gave you less than 5 stars makes me sad. This is a very important topic in these times and we need to read and re-read this document to understand truly the gifts we have been given under this.

I am so glad that you have mentioned the abuse that FDR did of this document and connected it to where we are now. My kids and I read and study the Constitution over lunch each and every day and I wish more people did and this is key:
The only right we have, in the end, is the right to take responsibility for our own condition and actions, and their consequence.

Nice post DJ. I like your i... (Below threshold)
Still An Unrepentant Democrat:

Nice post DJ. I like your intelligent perspectives even though I rarely agree with them.

Of course how one views the Constitution and it's intent is determined by their own political and/or legal perspectives. Hence, when we have a "conservative" court the Constitution is interpreted in a certain way and the same is true when we have a more "liberal" court. It's all springs from our somewhat messy democracy, which thank god, continues to work despite ourselves (sometimes). The pendulum swings back and forth and a balance somehow gets reached and we go on in the great way America does.

I respect the philosophical views of folks like you DJ and I understand the concerns about the exercise of power by our government. I thought Bush overstepped his power as some of you think Obama is doing. Yet isn't it interesting how our country continues to survive despite itself (sometimes).

Again, nice post.

DJ, I certainly agree that ... (Below threshold)

DJ, I certainly agree that people should be permitted to do what they want so long as they are not jeopardizing the safety of others. However, a government that seeks to educate its citizenry as to the benefits of, say, healthier living, does not limit anyone's freedom by promoting healthy living. It could be loosely and pejoratively described as 'social engineering', but so long as Billy the Brownshirt isn't caning anyone for having a second helping of hush puppies, where's the harm? Everyone should be allowed to choose to live their lives as they see fit, but if they are not making informed choices, the actual value in this laissez-faire conception of government is significantly diminished (in my opinion).

ke, actually, "universal rights" is a concept that would transcend 20th/21st century left vs. right politics. Not sure if they even used the term themselves, but Kant, Locke, and Mill are those whose thoughts on this subject I value the most--not some ninny agitating for PETA, and not some crank pimping for the NRA. I'm well aware of the divide between the everyday conception of something as complex as rights, and the academic understanding of it--and while it's understandable that a person might take umbrage to how a word is used in academic parlance, it's actually the academic parlance that ought to take precedent insofar as we're concerned with understanding things accurately as opposed to understanding things commonly. Otherwise, political theory could be totally supplanted by some sort of zeitgeist-ometer and nothing would be lost. The SCOTUS is sort of a bridge between the academic and practical worlds, as it often issues rulings that are very disconnected from the mainstream of public opinion; but then that's sort of the benefit and the purpose of having the SCOTUS, isn't it? Oftentimes lay people don't really understand what they're talking about so they latch onto a simplistic conception of a theory or principle because it's easily distilled into a soundbyte. I hate that about our culture.

Your point about education is taken, but education is an enterprise with specific goals in mind, and thus we ought to be empirical when evaluating the merits of publicly administered vs. privately pursued education. Look at the outcomes in terms of literacy, test scores, or some other (relatively) objective measure, and compare democracies with primarily publicly funded education vs. those that do not have such an offering. Societies that treat education as an entitlement, to use a conservative pejorative, may very well have less 'freedom' (the way you are using the word); but they would be doing a far greater job of promoting the 'general welfare' in that the population as a whole would be better suited to engage in competitive enterprise with one another, as legitimately free people: people who make informed decisions, as opposed to those who have a limited understanding of how the world works. I hope you would agree that it would be strange to consider an ignorant person 'free' in any meaningful sense of the word.

Sorry, I should clarify tha... (Below threshold)

Sorry, I should clarify that I don't think people who receive privately funded education are ignorant--in fact, they're probably better educated on the whole in the U.S. and definitely in Canada, than those who go through the public systems. I only mean to suggest that despite the poor quality of public education in some areas, there would certainly be even more ignorant people who are unsuited for competitive enterprise if socio-economically disadvantaged children did not have access to at least some form of education.

...and I'm off to a pig roa... (Below threshold)

...and I'm off to a pig roast for the evening. Would love to continue the discussion (and hopefully will have some time tomorrow to do so), but pork calls. :)

The problem of the infor... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

The problem of the informed choice, hyperbolist, comes when the line btween information and propaganda is crossed.

It's not unreasonable for the President and leading Democrats to have political goals - they took office to accomplish those things, after all. But demonization of industry and malicious caricatures of opposing viewpoints is not a matter of information.

"But demonization of indust... (Below threshold)
Still An Unrepentant Democrat:

"But demonization of industry and malicious caricatures of opposing viewpoints...." I do hope you believe that is a 2 way street DJ.

Absolutely, SAUD. <p... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Absolutely, SAUD.

I recall the old saying from a lawyer friend:

"When you cannot win on the facts, argue the law.

"When you cannot win on the law, argue emotion.

"When you cannot win on emotion, argue rhetoric.

"If you cannot win on the facts, on the law, on emotion, or on rhetoric, you might as well become a congressman."

There's another variation o... (Below threshold)
Still An Unrepentant Democrat:

There's another variation of the last one:

"If you cannot win on the facts or on the law, yell the loudest!

hyper, if that's what you m... (Below threshold)

hyper, if that's what you mean by universal human rights, that's fine. i may quibble because i prefer terms such as natural law, etc. but that is not normal usage of the term universal human rights, as i have seen it used. i have to admit i'm curious what you would include as "universal human rights"

when you say "where's the harm if nobody is caning" you are totally ignoring the moral and influencing power that a person in a position of authority has, especially a teacher. especially for young people, what a teacher says makes a strong impact on their decisions and development. the harm that bad teaching can cause is as measurable as the benefit that good teaching can do. and if the government is involved in teaching agendas, that means that politicians, rather than local parents and educators, are involved in teaching agendas. and do you really want that?

as to education. like you, i believe that government has a vested interest in seeing that it's populance is educated. i just think that the level of government where this lies is closer to the people than the federal government.

i'm curious how you define entitlement as well. you used it above, and i don't think i agree fully with your use of it.

Grea post, totally agree, e... (Below threshold)

Grea post, totally agree, except for this little part: "...and it is doubtful that we shall ever again see the government truly envisioned by the founding fathers." I know we will be better than ever.

Watch it DJ! Someone may s... (Below threshold)

Watch it DJ! Someone may submit your name to the White House snitch site. Imagine, "limited government". Barry, Nancy and Harry aren't going to like that idea!

Garadfan, your right. We ha... (Below threshold)

Garadfan, your right. We have to protect DJ. DJ, you are just too honest. Tamper it down a bit. ;) ww

"The only proper role f... (Below threshold)
P. Bunyan:

"The only proper role for government is to protect the citizens from enemies and continue the maintenance of infrastructure, but otherwise to shut up and get out of the way of those who do the real work at hand."


The sad thing is that the f... (Below threshold)
P. Bunyan:

The sad thing is that the founders created a system where our country could be "fifty little laboratories", as I've heard others describe it, but that's not the case today. The founders wanted a limited federal government while letting the states and local governments to have a lot of power. There were very few specific rights that were spelled out for the whole nation and the rest was left up to the people to decide for themselves.

It was a great system and worked for a century or more, but it didn't stick. Today, not only does our federal government confer and limit rights and privilages well beyond their power as spelled out in the constitution, but both the states the federal government have decided that those rights that were specifically enumerated in the Constitution aren't really, well, carved in stone or anything like that.

So how do we get back to the America our founders envisioned? That's the question we need to ask.

There are some ideas out there, but we need more and bigger and better. We need some community organization on our side. I don't know if we can match their dollars though...

The hipies is weathy these daze.

Great post, DJ. Writing lik... (Below threshold)

Great post, DJ. Writing like this is how I first found Wizbang, by following you here from Polipundit and Lorie from ByrdDroppings.

"There is only one basic hu... (Below threshold)

"There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences." - P.J. O'Rourke. Congress has done and continues to do everything in its power to curtail our rights and to unburden us from the consequences of our actions. None of this was envisioned by our founders nor included within the role of government outlined by the Constitution.

Great post. Great discussi... (Below threshold)

Great post. Great discussion. Well done all.

BobYou and O'Rourk... (Below threshold)
Still An Unrepentant Democrat:


You and O'Rourke gave a fabulous definition for anarchy. If that's what you espouse I assume you're willing to take the consequences.

"The only proper role for g... (Below threshold)
Tom Heehler:

"The only proper role for government is the protection of its citizens and to maintain infrastructure."

So you would have us abolish Medicare and Social Security? Abolish NASA?

Ke, by 'entitlement', I sim... (Below threshold)

Ke, by 'entitlement', I simply mean that to which each citizen is entitled. So, something that is either paid for out of pocket; or, if a person is unwilling or unable to provide this for themselves and their family, it would be provided for them by the government (or some benevolent organization). Medicare is one example, public education another. Do these programs run afoul of the Constitution? If so, then that goes to my original point in a previous post that perhaps the Constitution is not all-encompassing when it comes to defining the role of government. Some argue that government has gotten too big; I would argue that perhaps your society has outgrown the Constitution. That will sound ridiculous to some, but think about it: could anyone really define, in the late 18th century, what would be good for America in the early 21st century? I think it's wrong to fetishize a document.

As to what I would include as universal human rights: everyone has a right to food, shelter, rudimentary education at the very least, freedom from violence and discrimination (whether based on ethnicity, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever)... Basically, anything that you might feel an American child should not be expected to go without, the same applies to any child. And I think these rights entail obligations for those with the means to provide--e.g., the developed world. I really do think that someone in Malawi not having access to malaria vaccines is a problem for my government, and yours. And while we can't expect our governments to stop gender-based injustice in Saudi Arabia, or ethnic violence in Darfur, it doesn't mean that they shouldn't be genuinely concerned with these problems. It is my hope that our grandchildren will look back on the 20th century with a great sense of shame, in that we currently finance dictators when it serves our interests; pour money into Saudi bank accounts for their oil; finance the authoritarian Chinese government with our addiction to cheap, shitty consumer products; alienate gay people from mainstream society; etc.. Not sure that the Constitution speaks to any of these things, but then this goes to my original point that that which concerns your government is perhaps not limited to those matters that are specifically addressed within that document.

Now, as to your point (and DJ's) about public education being co-opted as a propaganda tool, there is obviously some risk that students would be taught controversial subject matter. And teachers, who have attended universities and are mostly union members, are certainly more liberal than the general population. Your notion of regionalizing the curricula so that each state is responsible for deciding what each child learns would not be problematic in my opinion, provided certain things were not taught--for instance, I would have a problem with children being taught that the earth is 10,000 years old (outside of the home or Sunday school), or that liberalism is basically the same thing as fascism, or that Republicans are inherently racist, or that Scientology is a legitimate belief system. Any approach to public education will be imperfect, for sure, but much less imperfect than the alternative, which would involve leaving a significant portion of the population totally uneducated such that they might never contribute to society. Some people might not like a teacher telling their kid that Europeans were responsible for the deaths of nearly the entire population of aboriginal North Americans, and that that's a very bad thing, but at least their kid will be able to read.

Tom Heeler - "So you wou... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Tom Heeler - "So you would have us abolish Medicare and Social Security? Abolish NASA?"

Yes. Not one of those is constitutional. Of the three, two do more harm than good and in every case a private solution could be found which would be better than the government version.

hyperbolist - "Do these ... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

hyperbolist - "Do these programs run afoul of the Constitution? If so, then that goes to my original point in a previous post that perhaps the Constitution is not all-encompassing when it comes to defining the role of government. Some argue that government has gotten too big; I would argue that perhaps your society has outgrown the Constitution. That will sound ridiculous to some, but think about it: could anyone really define, in the late 18th century, what would be good for America in the early 21st century? I think it's wrong to fetishize a document."

I think that last comment is a bit disrespectful for this discussion. The Constitution is flexible and can be amended, after all, to meet the needs of a changing world, but its role is framework, a skeleton if you will for the muscles and organs of the governmental body. It allows for growth while defending against unhealthy mutation.

For example, consider a government program that someone desires to enact which is not authorized by the Constitution. What then, is the basis for its creation?

The autocracy of a few powerful people?

Appealing to the mob?


Without a clear framework and boundaries, then the entire organism fails and everything devolves.

You're right, that does com... (Below threshold)

You're right, that does come off as prickish. By 'fetishize', I meant only to hold in higher esteem a single static document rather than the ideals to which its authors aspired. It's not 1776, so the idea that they 'got it right' for all time is a stretch to me. And I do realize that it can be amended, and that it is a framework; but if that framework prohibits programs such as Pell Grants, then I would argue that the framework is flawed. And then I guess I would be committed to the view that running afoul of the Constitution is not reason in and of itself for rejecting a program as legitimate--which I now realize would make me a hypocrite for criticizing the Bush Administration for the warrantless wiretapping that was certainly unconstitutional.

I read a quote on a Starbucks cup yesterday from Penn Gilette that said (paraphrasing) "I don't have a problem with hypocrites. They're twice as likely to be half right."

Can you answer the other qu... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Can you answer the other question, hyper? If the Constitution does not set the boundaries for government, what does?

The judiciary? I dunno. It'... (Below threshold)

The judiciary? I dunno. It's a tough question. If it can be shown with near certainty that a program would be effective in its goals, the cost would be acceptable, and the benefits for society significant (e.g. Pell Grants); but the Constitution prohibits such a program; then what would your response be? No more Pell Grants?

I don't think we should let sociologists and economists write laws; but neither do I think that a document produced by a select few very bright, thoughtful, well-intentioned people over two hundred years ago ought to limit what government can and cannot do when it comes to acting in the interests of its own citizens. If that document can be shown to prohibit the government acting in such a way--as conservatives who supported the warrantless wiretapping argued that it did, using the phrase "The Constitution is not a suicide pact"--then it ought to be reworked.

Here's the thing, hyperboli... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Here's the thing, hyperbolist. If we look at the last, say, century, we can see a number of influential and even popular social theories that have since been discredited - Fascism, Communism, and Eugenics for example. What protects the United States from extremists destroying the republic is that very document that some think to be out of date.

I think as an accountant, which means that every so often I shoot down some hot-shot exec's great idea by pointing out the risk. The rules in place to prevent disaster are often pooh-poohed as archaic and unnecessary, but when TSHTF it always - always - comes down to someone ignoring a rule that turned out not only to be important, but critical.

You made a point about the warrantless surveillance ("wiretapping" is a misnomer at best, after all) which we can debate and probably should. The Pell Grant is another good point. But just as I believe you probably saw the surveillance issue not so much as a threat (because it was being used to hunt real terrorists, not spy on honest Americans) but as a step towards a governm net which would ignore rights to do what it wants, I see Pell Grants as a dangerous step towards ends being used to justify the means. After all, there are many ways to go to college; I paid my way without scholarship or grant and believe that is the way most of us should make it happen. Merit scholarships are great, but that's not the government's business and in any case there are many private funds and fellowships which award scholarships and grants. Just because something is good does no mean we all have a right to it, or that we should have the government in charge of it.

I agree that the Constituti... (Below threshold)

I agree that the Constitution negates the possibility of your country embracing any sort of totalitarian form of government, which is an excellent feature. However, I don't see how supplementing or modifying the Constitution to allow for programs like Pell Grants and Medicare puts the nation on a slippery slope to Maoism or Fascism (actual fascism, a la Mussolini, not the Bush/Obama varieties). Do these programs make the United States a little bit more like Sweden or Canada? Sure. Is that terrible? Not really. FDR's New Deal is derided as being unconstitutional; and yet, it was responsible for the rapid growth of the middle class. Is America better for it? I think so.

People accept that taxes are a necessary component of maintaining a respectable society: they pay for roads, the electrical grid, etc.. I would argue, though, that in order to prevent the democracy established by the founders from devolving into some quasi-feudal state, where only the wealthy receive good education and health care, the social order is maintained through programs like Pell Grants and public education. I also put myself through school (and still have some student debt despite working the entire time I was enrolled); and I earned lots of scholarships and grants because I did well. However, speaking only for myself, that is a result of having been born into a hard-working family that values education. I didn't earn my socioeconomic background. It's a result of luck and nothing else that we are the sort of people who take responsibility for our actions and want to be successful. Were we born to single mothers with heroin problems, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now.

Again, I don't think that we should have sociologists writing all of our policy, but there are certain things that we understand about human psychology and the way a modern society works (and doesn't work!) that Washington et al would not have known, and when the proper way of addressing these issues is incompatible with the Constitution, I don't believe that the right thing to do is to pretend that nothing should be done.

And I think having elected representatives who are beholden to their constituents--and not industry--and the Supreme Court have provided sufficient checks to prevent the government from sliding down the slope from responsible and effective federal programs (Pell Grants, food stamps) to authoritarianism.

I didn't give you a negative vote on your previous post, by the way.

*previous comment, t... (Below threshold)

*previous comment, that is*

Thanks hyperbolist, I've gi... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Thanks hyperbolist, I've given + to all of yours here. Some folks can't see past their "team" and think it's a game to win. I like a civil conversation much better, and I think this thread is the best we've had here at W for weeks. Of course, I would say that about my own idea, but I mean that a constructive discussion beats the heck out of snarkfests any day.

I do mean to write up a retrospective on the warrantless surveillance, but right now I am chewing through work and the 1017 pages of HR 3200.

To the point, you referred to people from single-mother homes with drug issues. I could mention that it's a lot more common to see families miss college because they can't afford the mortgage, heavy taxes and tuition (yet are considered too wealthy and white to get financial aid), while the state gives tuition breaks and even financial assistance to others simply on the basis of race or cultural background. The problem is that once the government starts deciding who should get special treatment, the historical record shows that abuse is the inevitable result. Shades of 'Faust', it seems.

Repeal all GUN CONTROL LAWS... (Below threshold)

Repeal all GUN CONTROL LAWS and bring back the constitution and dump all these unconstitutional laws and time for liberals to stop interpeting the constitution to make it able for for naked idiots to walk through town

I've enjoyed this conversat... (Below threshold)

I've enjoyed this conversation too, DJ: an entire thread without any mention of Hitler.

Ah shucks, I went and jinxed it. :)

I accept your point about life being difficult financially not only for the usual stereotypical suspects but also for the middle class. I didn't qualify for student loans from the government because my father made too much money; and yet, he could hardly afford mortgage payments because he spent three years during the 90s looking for work and had to borrow to keep food on the table and gas in the cars. So I borrowed from a bank, and now I'm paying prime rate +3%. Had to move to Korea to teach for a year in order to pay off half the loan ($30,000, tax free, free housing equates to about $90,000/year in Toronto). And I'm not complaining, just agreeing with you in detail.

Of course, Swedes all get first-class university education, even in grad school, but obviously that's hardly relevant to a discussion on the role of government in the United States as it relates to public education.

Have a great weekend. Good luck slogging through the bill!






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