Saturday, December 1, 2012

Principles And Politics Part 2: Which Principles?

The previous segment concerned itself with a delineation of principle as such -- principles as distinguished from other sorts of rules or guidelines. That's fundamental stuff; without a clear understanding of the absoluteness of principles, it's far too easy to confuse them with desiderata of other kinds: "shoulds" that cannot rise to "musts."

But it's only the beginning. Any hard-edged dictum that divides a coherent subset of the universe of human actions into a "right" group and a "wrong" group constitutes a principle. Once we allow ourselves to think about politics and law, we must choose the principles that will constrain us. That choice is one of the two most important political steps; the other is steeling ourselves to stand by it, and to defend it.


At the highest level, I prefer the principle of republican government to the alternatives:

  1. There shall be a Supreme Law;
  2. It shall be easy to refer to and to comprehend;
  3. All other law shall conform to it.

But that's only a starting point: the founding principle of constitutionalism. There are more decisions to be made: specifically, What shall the Supreme Law permit, compel, and prohibit?

In times past, I've harped on the idea that the government of a republic must confine itself to the rei publicae: those subjects which are inherently about the aggregate well-being of the nation, rather than a provincial interest of any individual or sub-group. Under this conception, the Supreme Law should confine the government strictly to activities that cannot be privatized: i.e., that cannot be handed off to the efforts of persons or organizations with an inherent interest in pursuing them.

This is not an easy partition to define. Consider how many Americans would argue that the relief of poverty, however defined, is essential to the aggregate well-being of the nation. The argument might be defeasible, but the passion behind it is not.

The range of subjects that can be privatized can change over time. For example, when the Constitution was written, there was essentially no substitute for a federal postal system. Today we can easily do without it. So such decisions must be amendable, out of respect for human fallibility if for no other reason.

Though the logic escapes some, the Supreme Law must account for certain wholly private actions, as well. Perhaps the best example is the weapon of mass destruction. Even Americans completely in favor of the private ownership of firearms would balk at a reading of the Second Amendment that permits individuals to own H-Bombs or war viruses. (Whether the government should be permitted such toys is a separate and much more difficult question.)

Finally for this level of the analysis, there's a distinction to be drawn between limitable and illimitable powers. Consider the parallel case of the Ten Commandments. Possibly the best thing ever said about them came from the great G. K. Chesterton:

The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Ten Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted: precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden.

Similarly, it's critical, in writing a Supreme Law, to grant the State only powers that can be sharply and strictly limited. It must be immediately apparent whenever the State attempts to exceed its bounds. Of course, persons desirous of unbounded power will think little of this consideration...if, indeed, they aren't openly opposed to it from the first. But here again, the nature of principle should be paramount: A rule that doesn't draw a bright and unambiguous line between right and wrong is not a principle and should have no place in the Supreme Law.


In musing over this subject, it strikes me afresh how unbelievably brilliant the Founding Fathers were. In composing a Constitution for the United States, they got nearly everything right. Somehow, those three months in Philadelphia were blessed by a degree of insight into statecraft that had never occurred before. (It's certainly never occurred since.) The authorities and activities they allowed to Washington, the restrictions they placed on federal power, and the things they prohibited to the state governments mesh almost perfectly. Those who scorn their achievement should be challenged to present something to compare to it. But then, such persons normally have an agenda that departs radically from the protection of Americans' rights to life, liberty, and property.

They who dissent from the principles expressed in the Constitution (and its associated amendments) have often made ingenious arguments about why this or that seemingly benign but inherently illimitable activity should be included in Washington's purview. Neither logic nor practical evidence will sway them; they always have a fall-back position of some sort that allows them to escape any examination of their original contention:

  • "It needs more money."
  • "The administration and enforcement were inept."
  • "The wrong people were put in charge."

Many such advocates are single-issue zealots: only their Cause matters to them, and damned be he who dares suggest that other priorities deserve equal or greater respect. But others have a deeper agenda, one that's hostile to freedom and seeks to extinguish it. To allow a government a power that's inherently incapable of being limited is most useful to such persons...and the best possible evidence of their ultimate aims. Thwarting their desires before they can even get into motion is the best imaginable argument for the importance of a principle-based Supreme Law.

More anon.

5 comments:

Graybeard said...

This is the essence of progressivism and "unconstrained vision" as Thomas Sowell calls it.

."It needs more money."
."The administration and enforcement were inept."
."The wrong people were put in charge."


If we somehow get just the right technocrats in place, society will be perfect. Mankind is perfectable. The alternate view is that man is not perfectable, and power will always corrupt. The smaller the government, the less corruption and evil.

It is nothing short of a miracle that a group of gentlemen farmers at the end of the 1700s produced the most perfect document on governance ever written.

ΛΕΟΝΙΔΑΣ said...

We all know that the victors always write the history of a struggle. The debate over ratification of the US Constitution is no exception. The antifederalists, Patrick Henry among them, posited cogent arguments against abandoning the original Articles of Confederation. "Their arguments contain warnings of dangers from tyranny that weaknesses in the proposed Constitution did not adequately provide against, and while some of those weaknesses were corrected [later to be ignored[ by adoption of the Bill of Rights, others remained, and some of these dangers are now coming to pass."

It is ironic that much of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are a dead letter today. Reconcile the wording of the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth and Tenth Amendments with the routine actions of the TSA, ATF, EPA and FBI to name but 4 of the arms of the runaway executive branch of the Federal government.

furball said...

Greek Guy;

I'm not sure where you're coming from, but the first article of the Confederation says, "We'll be called the United States, and the second article says,

"Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power jurisdiction and right which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled."

Now look at the watered-down 10th amendment in the Bill of Rights:

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

They would seem to say the same thing, and maybe the Founders meant them to say the same thing, but 200 years of jerks trying to dismantle the structure of our FEDERATION have neutered states' rights.

Notice the declarative statement: "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence. . ."

Right THERE you can argue what sovereignty and freedom mean. . . and whatever they mean, they are held by the STATES, not the Federal government. IT SAYS SO, RIGHT THERE, IN CLEAR ENGLISH: "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence. . ."

The rest of the second article in the Articles of Confederation is what got put into the 10th amendment: "and every power jurisdiction and right which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States. . ." which got turned into:

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

I'm not dissing the 10th amendment. But without that prologue, "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence," it loses some of its vigor.

Hell, it loses its very ESSENCE!

Can ANYONE argue that ANY state retains it sovereignty, freedom and independence these days?

Greek Guy is right. The victors write the history. What we learned in about 5 minutes in High School is that the original Articles of Confederation "weren't strong enough to give the Federal Government power to enforce it's mandates."

If we had a serious education system, we'd be engaging our 6th, 7th and 8th graders in reading the Federalist Papers and discussing the goals of the 2 different Constitutional assemblies.

The sick thing is, that would have been readily accepted 100, or even 60 years ago. Now it would be yelled down by the very people who have a vested interest in having a central government that favors . . .

aw, hell, you know where it goes from there.

furball said...

Just to go a little further:

In 1781, we had just gone through a freaking WAR with the greatest military on earth and WON! And we did it for truths that were expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Most of those same guys came up with the Articles of Confederation.

Eight years later, we get all those - what is it, 91? - Federalist Papers. Fine. Let's read those. But why is it that all we learn in High School is a Whiskey Rebellion and a supposed "weakness of the Federal Government?"

The implication is that the original Articles of Confederation are de-facto flawed. If the Declaration of Independence is so great, and if a rag-tag army of believers could defeat the world's greatest nation for its independence, then why would the 1st Constitution those SAME
people created be so deficient?

As near as I can tell by MY reading, the 2nd Constitutional Congress exceeded its authority. And that "fact" is proven and annotated by a lot of people who are a lot more knowledgeable than I am.

For 200 years, we could shrug and say, "Well, it turned out ok." Now, we can look at the federal government and say, "No, it didn't." And then we'd better ask, "Why not?"

furball said...

Last comment: The first article of the Articles of Confederation says, "The style of this confederation shall be The United States of America."

The VERY NEXT article says,"Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power jurisdiction and right which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled."

That is, the Constitution that the people who had just fought their war for independence had, as the FIRST statement, after declaring their name was, "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence."

Imagine it. Dirty, haggard, crippled veterans are returning to their homes and trying to make a living. The Philadelphia and Massachusetts rabble-rousers and lawyers are trying to form a ruling policy.

AND THE VERY FIRST THING THEY SAY, AFTER SAYING, "CALL US THE UNITED STATES, IS: "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence."

Vote with your feet. Just about EVERY social "problem," from abortion to health care to Sandra Fluke's condoms to education vouchers was SUPPOSED to have been a STATE issue, not a central government diktat.

Imagine the REAL diversity that would come from 50 states implementing social policy based on their own local populations. Alternatively, how "diverse" are we now, with a politically correct media and Department of Justice that screams "racist" or "homophobe" at any disagreement with the central secretariat of the eternally spewing left wing?

Why shouldn't a state not allow public sector unions if that state chooses? Why shouldn't a state have vouchers? Why shouldn't a state have REAL *INSURANCE* for health care rather than a monopolistic fantasy that grows at 10 times the GDP?

And yes, I'll say it: Why shouldn't a state have the 10 Commandments in a state building? That's not a "law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." As far as Christmas decorations or a moment of prayer in a high school? You wuss! If you wanna have nothing, go to California, ok? No one is forcing you to stay here.

But, the way things are now, we ARE being forced to stay HERE. In the Socialist Democracy of the United States. (Peace Be Unto Obama's Name.)

I'm not gonna argue that the Southern States should have been allowed to secede. Nor will I argue that slavery is a state right. But what got lost in all that hyperbole is that the federal government was given very explicit and limited powers, even by the SECOND Constitution.

Everything else. . . EVERYTHING, belongs to the states or the people.

Is that the way things are now?