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:
- There shall be a Supreme Law;
- It shall be easy to refer to and to comprehend;
- 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.