On this date 239 years ago New Hampshire adopted the Constitution and the Constitution went into effect, as the “Live Free or Die State” was the ninth state to vote to ratify it. I love the Constitution. The Founding Fathers crafted it well. Where this country has gone off the rails is when one arm of the tripartite government begins to operate outside of its scope. For example, when courts act like legislatures, when administrative agencies act like legislatures, when Congress attempts to micromanage foreign policy, etc. I have heard the Constitution praised as the bulwark of our liberties. It is a pretty sentiment, but mistaken. Lincoln hit the target in a speech on what is the bulwark of our liberties, after God:
What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, the guns of our war steamers, or the strength of our gallant and disciplined army. These are not our reliance against a resumption of tyranny in our fair land. All of them may be turned against our liberties, without making us stronger or weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, every where. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.
September, 11, 1858
So we’ve been discussing the proper role of the state on this blog recently, particularly as it relates to the legalization of marijuana. This discussion, in all of its unfortunate snarkiness and nastiness (to which I freely admit having contributed, not that I’m proud of it) is really a discussion on the proper role of the state.
I think it is rather uncontroversial to assert that America was basically founded upon the Lockean social contract theory. We begin with the proposition that everyone has basic natural rights: to life, liberty, and property. In a hypothetical scenario in which there is no coercive authority (the state/government), we must also act as our own judge, jury and executioner. In this anarchic situation, our rights to life, liberty and property are unsecured. In order to secure them, we collectively renounce our right to be our own personal government and transfer that right to a government we establish by contract. Our property – life, liberty and estate – is more valuable and necessary for life than our “right” to do as we please, when we please, to whomever we please.
The terms of the contract are rather simple. They are stated very simply in the Declaration of Independence. Governments exist to protect our natural rights. They don’t exist to make us “better people” – that’s what the Church is for. They don’t exist in order to achieve “social justice” – that is what private charity and free markets are for. The individual American states were founded by people of like-minds who wanted to establish communities that reflected their religious values – Pennsylvania for Quakers, Maryland for Catholics, and so on. The Constitution was created by the states mostly for the purposes of common security.
Government is not a positive good. It is an evil necessary to prevent the greater evils that would result from total anarchy. As such, it must be kept on the tightest of all possible leashes, which is why so many Americans demanded a Bill of Rights as a condition for the ratification of the Constitution. If men in a state of anarchy would be evil, they don’t suddenly become angels because we give them titles, badges, and offices. The evil in our hearts is the evil in their hearts, and the greater the scope and depth of the powers we give to governments, the greater potential for evil we establish.
A State owned church in France
Liberte, Egalite, Fraternitie. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Often when we look upon these mottos of two of the three great revolutions, the French and the American (the third of course being the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia), we often feel they are comparable and born of the same mother, the so-called Enlightenment. We certainly have been taught this in school, and it is true to an extent. The desire for man to be free is inherent in us. But how and by what means we attain that freedom is often the deciding factor in whether we really become free, or exchange one slave master for another. That is where the mottos of these revolutions show us why one failed, and descended into unspeakable horror and bloodshed, and the other, with all its imperfections, succeeded and became the greatest democracy in world history.