This post concerns the force and effect of the United States Constitution and similar documents. I’ll stick with the U.S. version for simplicity and because most state and many foreign constitutions are based on the federal version.
The old parchment is divided into several articles and subsequent amendments. Each of these deals with different legal concepts. Article One grants certain powers to Congress. Article Two does the same for the executive. Amendment Three prohibits the government from sheltering soldiers in your house during peacetime. There are seven primary articles and twenty-seven amendments.
Aside from formal division the Constitution may be properly divided into two parts. Good Constitutional Law professors cover this in first year law school. The notice is generally lost amid a mad scramble to interpret Byzantine case-law and make a living as an attorney. The lesson is almost completely unknown outside of law and political theory education.
The first effective feature of the Constitution is that is allows powers for the government. In fact the Constitution created the federal government. In 1789 those seeking strong central political control replaced the Articles of Confederation which had loosely united the several (and wholly independent) states for a very few mutually beneficial purposes. The first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, came along two years later as almost an afterthought.
The anti-federalists were concerned that certain fundamental rights needed official recognition and legal protection. Their theory was that a strong government, even of republican nature, could run roughshod over the freedoms of the people – like a dictatorial monarch. The amendments were added without much fuss as it was then concerned the new government, its keepers, and their successors would never seek to abridge such rights as freedom of speech, bearing arms, or freedom from illegal arrest and punishment. No one saw any harm in the additions.
The inclusion of those additional protections proved both prophetic and pointless. Those ten amendments and a few others comprise the other practical function of the Constitution – protection of individual rights.
In an ideal world government would only exist to protect people from those things they would be otherwise vulnerable to. The proper function of law and politics would be a careful balancing of the power of the government and the rights of the people. Powers versus rights. Some legal scholars still wax elegantly about the concept. Their conceptualization is largely just conceptual.
The new federal government lost little time in enacting various laws which curtailed individual liberty. The trend continues to this day in addition to the habit of constantly expanding the realm of federal authority light years beyond what the Constitution allows. The courts, allegedly the arbiters of the balancing test, have largely consented to this gross shift. They too wasted no time in inventing new authority for themselves – “judicial review” for example.
Any review usually ends up empowering the state. They are on the same team after all. The people, now bereft of representation and appellate avenues, are on the outside looking in. Lawyers gleefully await court decisions to tell them what laws really mean. The public, largely fat and ignorant, continues to support this corrupt system with astounding zealous patriotism.
As a result of all this what we are left with is a central government of unlimited power ruling over a nation of peasants who are happy to receive whatever liberty the rulers confer upon them. Every once in a while one or another branch kindly reaffirms some right. These are usually in trivial matters. However, the march to greater control never ceases. It works well as most do not favor freedom. Under the faux two-party system, most go along so long as their side wins on a somewhat regular basis.
In truth, they lose. We all lose. All except for the corrupt politicians and beaurocrats and their corporate crony enablers. The system is wrecked and bears nearly resemblance to even that central authoritarian regimes of the late seventeen Century let along an ideal state.
In modern reality ignorance abounds. Some speak of the right of the government to do some thing or the other. Governments have no rights as they are artificial constructs. Only human individuals have rights. These rights are natural, God-given. Governments can only protect or (more often) abridge those freedoms.
Others decry freedom outright. They declare the people have too many rights. For them, in their simple lives, they may be right. Argument for order and justice is lost on them and a waste of time.
There are those who indulge in the fantasy that a return to the original text and intent of the Constitution would usher in utopia. If this myth was anything but, I could agree with them. The federal government of 1791 would be infinitely better than what we suffer today. That of the Articles would be better yet.
The myth lovers assert the Constitution established a national government of limited scope. Maybe they are correct in theory. In real life no government worth its salt stays limited for long. Geometric growth of government is an iron law of political science.
So it is with freedom and central authority. Mencken.
Lysander Spooner said it best of the lost war of Rights versus Powers: “But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.” He elaborated: “A man’s natural rights are his own, against the whole world; and any infringement of them is equally a crime, whether committed by one man, or by millions; whether committed by one man, calling himself a robber, (or by any other name indicating his true character,) or by millions, calling themselves a government.”
I find my view of anarchy criticized at times as belief in fantasy. It is said that men, by their very nature, cannot be trusted for long to maintain free, peaceful association and mutual respect. This, sadly, may be true. It, then, is also true that an honest man, desiring to remain free, cannot trust a government, any government. Belief in central authority is thus misguided. Tell you what, you have your fantasy and I’ll have mine. The rest of you have a choice to make: support powers or support rights.