Today, we celebrate the 227th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution, but so many people will never know it. Because many Americans never studied why our founding documents are so unique, and they never learned the importance of our Constitutional Republic.
This lack of appreciation for our Constitution is why our original system of government is hardly recognizable. Most Americans living in the 21st century fail to appreciate the superiority of the American system of government. After all, there are many “liberal democracies” in the world that are not governed by dictators or monarchs, what is so unique about our form of democracy?
But the gradual erosion of freedom in this country over the past half century, culminating with the Obama presidency presents us with an opportune moment to hearken back to our founding principles and explore the uniqueness of our Constitutional Republic as it was originally conceived.
Shaking off the yoke of the British monarch was the easier task for the colonists during the late 18th century. The hard part was formulating a system of governance that would net the optimal degree of liberty for everyone. The absence of any central authority leads to anarchy, and eventually full-scale tyranny. A simple democracy, which is how most countries operate, will also result in tyranny. Under a democracy, elections become the most important element of governance. If a group of slick powerful elite are able to hoodwink 51% of the population into empowering them, they can engineer any societal change at whim.
As Jefferson observed in Notes on the State of Virginia, “it will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. 173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one.” Unfortunately, this is the system of government we have today. It’s all about elections, and if a group of well-oiled politicians can squeeze out the right number of votes in the right places, they can take over any sector of our economy, engage in social engineering and central planning, and shirk the few core responsibilities of a federal government, such as national security and sovereignty over our borders.
But our government was not always like that. It did not always operate like a pure democracy, which founder John Witherspoon feared was “very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage.” We once elected representatives who were bound by the Constitution. Elections were not the end all. Irrespective of which political party obtained power, they were supposed to follow a core set of principles.
What are those constitutional principles that were so vital to preserving liberty, yet currently under assault as our Republic is transformed into a pure democracy, or as James Madison portended in Federalist 48 , an Elective Despotism?
The foundation of the Constitution was predicated on the notion that the Federal government should be vested with very specific enumerated powers, such as foreign affairs, national security, and protecting the states from invasion. Other important functions were to be left to the states. Everything else is within the sole purview of private citizens and private enterprise. Hence, the power was divided up between the federal government, state, and the individual, with the appropriate delegation of each power. So, if a group of elite politicians win an election and think of a grand idea that is not within their power, they lack the ability to pursue that policy, irrespective of the media narrative or superficial polling data.
Furthermore, in their prescient fear of a voracious central government, the founders divided the federal government into three branches, while vesting most of the power in the legislative branch, and for purposes of taxation, they delegated the most authority to the House of Representatives, so that the government would be most accountable to the people. But unlike most liberal democracies, which have a parliamentary system, the Founders wanted to keep the power to execute the laws separate from the power to create laws, so that those actually affecting the lives of the people (the Executive Branch) would be checked with oversight and the power of the purse.
Fast-forward to today and our Republic has been flipped upside down. Both federal and state governments tax, regulate, subsidize, and distort every aspect of our lives. While infringing upon our liberties with illegal usurpation of power, the federal government fails to properly execute its core function of preserving liberty by protecting our borders. Ironically, one of the powers of the federal government manifested through the Commerce Clause is to prevent states from burdening the people with cross-border taxation. After illegitimately using the Commerce Clause for every politically-motivated intervention over the years, many in Congress are now prepared to relinquish their only proper usage of this clause by allowing states to tax internet sales across state lines.
The hierarchy of the federal government itself has also been contorted from its original model. The officious bureaucracy has grown so large and complex that Congress – the most important branch of the federal government – has become obsequious to an out-of-control executive branch by failing to hold it accountable and by writing laws so broadly that the will of the people is not reflected in any administrative action. We now have a president who can openly promise to rule by executive fiat and Congress rolls over backwards to avoid any conflict with him.
As the midterm elections cast a heavy shadow over the political discourse, Constitution Day should remind us that our elections are as meaningful as those conducted in the Middle East unless we demand that those elected officials return to our founding principles.