Over time the United States Constitution has come to be treated like an old tradition: for a few it has become infallible, for many it has become mysterious, and for some it has become obsolete. Overall it may have increased in abstract authority, but it has lost real meaning to the masses. Consequently, for most politicians, the Constitution is a useful campaign tool—a source of great soundbites—but doesn’t guide them in the execution of their office. Sadly, not enough citizens today understand the Constitution well enough to ensure that their representatives uphold their oath of office. This condition of constitutional decline begs the question, why have a constitution at all?
History answers persuasively with story after story of brutal strongmen who transformed their neighbors into subjects and then took their property, liberty, and sometimes their lives. All governments require at least some small compromise between security and freedom: people banding together for protection give up a part of their privacy, autonomy, and property. But an effective constitution prevents government from taking more than what its creators intended to give it. While most laws are written to protect individuals from each other, a constitution is written to protect individuals from their government.
Often, as in the case of the United States, a revolution gives birth to a constitution, but a constitution only reaches maturity and proves its effectiveness once government is firmly established. That is when the government will test its bounds. Not in an overt way; no frontal assault on the majority. It is usually more gradual in the beginning: crushing a disfavored religious group; seizing property from some weak minority; censoring the speech of a fringe political party. That is when the people must choose whether they value their constitution enough to enforce it, whether they have managed to create a limited, stable government or whether their revolution was just a bloody game of musical chairs—offering relief only until the music stops.
Creating and preserving a constitutionally restricted government is tricky business. On the one hand you have the self-interest of the needy and the lazy motivating them to abuse government power to steal from their hard-working neighbors. On the other hand you have the power-hungry and the ambitious who want to abuse government power to advance their agendas, well-intentioned or otherwise, at the expense of their neighbors’ liberty. If either group succeeds in persuading the public to exceed the limits set by their constitution, the game is up, and fickle public opinion becomes the only real check on government power.
The Constitution of the United States was designed with the modest goal of establishing a strictly limited federal government. The founding generation had just fought a bloody war to escape an overreaching dictator, and their only goal was to loosely unite the self-governing, sovereign states to facilitate self-defense and trade. Some of the best minds of a generation debated the question of how best to accomplish this, and although they only met for about four months, the ideas they struggled with were distilled from centuries of hard lessons. Their guiding principle was human equality. They stated it in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, and it guided their efforts as they wrote the Constitution. Their work was far from flawless, but it still stands as the best in human history.
Now, as has happened many times in the past, there is intense pressure to ignore constitutional restraints. Coupled with this is profound apathy and ignorance on the part of the public toward constitutional principles. Politicians from both major parties employ fear-mongering, class warfare, and hype to persuade otherwise reasonable people to break down the constitutional limits their ancestors fought so hard to erect. For example, a little less than two months ago, the President of the United States signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012. On its face this was just another enormous multipurpose funding bill disposing of $663 billion of hard-earned taxes (direct or indirect), but in fact it did much more. Section 1021 is worth special attention because it authorizes the indefinite detention without trial of any person that the President or his agents designate. Power like this is far more characteristic of a tyrant than a constitutionally restrained public servant.
Unconstitutional laws such as this one force the citizens to once again make a choice: stand up to government and demand that it stay within its limits, or let it go. Thomas Jefferson wrote movingly about an occasion, before the U.S. Constitution was written, when his home state of Virginia contemplated exchanging its constitutionally limited government for a dictator:
In December 1776, our circumstances being much distressed, it was proposed in the house of delegates to create a dictator, invested with every power legislative, executive, and judiciary, civil and military, of life and of death, over our persons and over our properties: and in June 1781, again under calamity, the same proposition was repeated, and wanted a few votes only of being passed.—One who entered into this contest from a pure love of liberty, and a sense of injured rights, who determined to make every sacrifice, and to meet every danger, for the re-establishment of those rights on a firm basis, who did not mean to expend his blood and substance for the wretched purpose of changing this master for that, but to place the powers of governing him in a plurality of hands of his own choice, so that the corrupt will of no one man might in future oppress him, must stand confounded and dismayed when he is told, that a considerable portion of that plurality had meditated the surrender of them into a single hand, and, in lieu of a limited monarch, to deliver him over to a despotic one! How must he find his efforts and sacrifices abused and baffled, if he may still, by a single vote, be laid prostrate at the feet of one man! In God’s name, from whence have they derived this power?
American citizens face this choice today and every day. Illegal detention that oversteps our Constitution’s limits is just one example. History offers many, many more. Politicians always urge some “expedient” and “necessary” compromise to expand the power of government; there is always some emergency that they say requires curtailing liberty. But before you are swept away by their slogans and prophecies of doom, pause and think for a minute about why we have a constitution.