The Constitutionalists

More

Here's the good news.  According to a recent article in The Hill, the Constitution has become a runaway best-seller.  The Government Printing Office has sold nearly 9,000 copies in the past eight months and that's not counting the copies provided to constituents by members of Congress (who collectively dispense with thousands more) or copies bought in stores or downloaded from the Internet.  We who love the Constitution beam with joy.

But of course that assumes a lot: I read Kierkegaard once; didn't understand a word.  I wonder how many of the people currently reading the Constitution, citing it, waving it at rallies, have a clue as to what it means.

Interpreting the Constitution is not as simple as just reading it, of course, although I lean a bit toward the "strict construction" view myself ("words have meanings; it means what it says").  There is also the "originalist" view, mostly propounded by people like Justice Scalia, who have advanced degrees in mind-reading and argue that what really matters is not what the Constitution says but what the Founders meant.  And there are the LBC'ers ("Living, Breathing Document") who argue that the Constitution, having been written by a bunch of white guys, now long deceased, we should interpret it to say what we think it should say without bothering to go through either of the two prescribed methods for amending it. 

There's the Bork school (Robert Bork, even though he was a federal judge, thought we have no rights at all unless the Constitution grants them to us; obviously the bells ending his classes at the University of Chicago Law School rang before discussions reached the reiterative Ninth and Tenth Amendments).  And there's the Gingrich school, wherein the First Amendment protection of religious diversity is taken to mean that it is the government's duty to embrace religion, its failure to do so constituting the "secular" portion of the Gingrichian assault on what he defines as the "secular socialism" of the current presidential administration.  I do not personally fault Mr. Gingrich for his use of the words "secular" or "socialism"; he was not, after all, an English major, and words are slippery in his grasp.

All this is by way of saying that one who feels strongly about a preferred course of action might be inclined to see the Constitution through a carefully calibrated lens.  But there are limits.

Many who today wave the Constitution as Dracula's hunters might have brandished a wooden stake claim it as a protector of the virtue of a constitutionally-guaranteed "small government."  Herein lies a fundamental error.  Preference for a small government -- a lighter tax burden, more reliance on private initiative, less direction and intrusion emanating from Washington -- have a valid political case to be made; for the most part, I share it.  Governments that grow too large threaten both liberty and prosperity.  But "small" government is a political preference; it is not a constitutional mandate.  What the Constitution offers us is "limited" government.

Here's the difference.  If government sticks to its knitting -- does what it's authorized to do -- it might grow quite large, especially in a nation of 300 million people.  If the people (or at least those among them who bother to participate in the political process) opt to pay higher taxes for greater benefits, I might oppose them at the polls but what they ask is not constitutionally prohibited.  "Limits" are as to scope, not size.

The Constitution constrains government and diffuses its authority -- that is at the heart of what makes American different from the nations that went before it -- but it also empowers government.  The Founders set out not merely to distance themselves from George III and the British Parliament (they could have done that just by adopting the Declaration of Independence and enforcing it by whomping the Redcoats) but to create a new country.  They -- yes, James Madison, too -- wanted a government that operated within limits and with divided realms of authority, but that nonetheless could function as governments function.  The Constitution does not prohibit the federal government from taxing the citizenry; it only sets out what kinds of taxes may not be imposed.  It acts -- it acted to suppress the Shays Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion, to create post offices and roads, to build a military force, to negotiate for land purchases.  These were not usurpers; these were the Founders.

It is because government is empowered as well as constrained that it was able to bring together the fighting force that stopped Hitler and the Japanese and boxed in Stalin and ultimately created sufficient pressure on the communist world to reduce it to the pathetic shards that remain today.  It was because government was empowered that men, women, and children were saved from drowning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  It is the reason your Christmas cards were delivered and the reason you are able to drive quickly from wherever you live to wherever you are headed to join in the protest against government.

The irony is that so many who wield the Constitution as their own pet mantra either have no idea what it means or don't care.  Some, for example, argue that some people whom the government says are probably terrorists should be locked up and held forever, no charges, nothing, locked away until they rot, just because that's what the government wants.  First of all, that's a whole lot like the British kings who locked up their perceived enemies, or rivals, in the Tower of London, or the various world-class dictators from Mao to Mussolini to Pol Pot for whom law was what they said it was.  But this locking 'em up on the government's say-so is -- ta-da -- expressly, specifically, clearly, unambiguously prohibited by the Constitution.  One may argue that it should be done anyway -- you know, for our safety -- and that's a reasonable argument to make, but one cannot make that argument and stage protests demanding that the government obey the Constitution.

And so my enthusiasm is tempered.  I am delighted to see so many Americans rushing to buy the Constitution and equally delighted to see so many demanding that the government adhere to it.  Many in the highest ranks of government today operate from the LBD perspective; do what we want to do, run up massive federal deficits, create new federal powers, take over the ownership or management or one-step-removed directorship of banks, businesses, industries.  If you're among the many bothered by the rampant growth, and cost, of we-know-best Washington, I'm with you.  But don't drag a mangled version of constitutionality into the political ring with you.  Don't condone that which is patently unconstitutional (presidents declaring the authority to decide for themselves whether to obey the laws) while wrapping yourself in its pages.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Death of Film: After Hollywood Goes Digital, What Happens to Movies?

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In