by Bruce Thornton // FrontPage Magazine
Independence Day is a good time to revisit the foundations of our political order, especially given the long record of Barack Obama and the Democrats’ disregard for the Constitution. The members of the Continental Congress who met in Philadelphia in July 1776 sought their independence from England in order to recover their rights that had been violated by a tyrant, and to establish political freedom and autonomy so that those rights could be protected from further erosion. For a century now the Progressive ideology has insidiously undermined that legacy of autonomy in a slow-motion revolution that aims to “fundamentally transform America.”
The Declaration of Independence contains a statement of principles that justify the indictment of George III that makes up the bulk of the document. The principles are straightforward: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.––That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The key point is that rights are not the gifts of men, for such rights can be taken back by the same power that bestows them. Rather, they are the defining elements of human nature bestowed by the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Individual autonomy is the birthright of all, and can be limited only by the consent of the people, who establish collective power residing in government for specific, limited purposes, and they can take that power back when government exceeds those legitimate purposes. A decade later the framers of the Constitution would enumerate these limited powers and institutionalize the purposes for which they can be used. Thus the significance of the Declaration must be found in the political order created a decade later to institutionalize the principles of 1776.
For the framers, political power had to be divided, balanced, and limited because human nature was prone to corruption, empowering “passions and interests” that threatened freedom. This suspicion of concentrated power defined the political thinking of the framers, who agreed with Machiavelli that “it is necessary to whoever arranges to found a Republic and establish laws in it, to presuppose that all men are bad and that they will uses their malignity of mind every time they have the opportunity.” They had learned from history and their own experience as subjects of an unjust ruler that a flawed human nature meant no man or elite, whether defined by birth, wealth, or education, can be trusted with power for too long. Such power inevitably becomes tyrannical, as the “repeated injuries and usurpations” of George III, copiously documented in the Declaration, demonstrated. Yet the mass of people, if given unlimited freedom, could be just as tyrannical and oppressive, just as prone to the corruption of power. To protect those “unalienable rights” and guarantee the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” then, a political order had to be created that, in the words of Orestes Brownson, protected “the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy.”
The Constitution crafted a decade after the Declaration brilliantly institutionalized the protection of freedom and autonomy at the same time it created a unified central government to perform the functions beyond the powers of the individual states. It did not create the federal government to “solve problems,” for local communities, families, civil society, and state governments were better suited for that task, as they were closer to and more intimate with the great variety of the American people and their mores, religious denominations, customs, and interests.
Obama and his Progressive brethren have attacked the philosophical assumptions of the Declaration and the Constitution root and branch. A century ago Progressives were calling for a “living” Constitution more suitable for modern times than the allegedly outmoded one of the founders. Woodrow Wilson wrote in 1913, “All that progressives ask or desire is permission––in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution’ is the scientific word––to interpret the Constitution according to Darwinian principle.” This same assumption has been the credo of modern progressives like Ezra Klein, who in 2010 dismissed our foundational document, claiming “the text is confusing because it was written more than 100 years ago [sic] and what people believe it says differs from person to person and differs depending on what they want to get done.” As a candidate in 2008 Obama similarly complained that the Constitution was a mere “charter of negative liberties” that “says what the states can’t do to you, says what the Federal government can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what the Federal government or State government must do on your behalf.”
Some see this statement as ignorance or misunderstanding on the part of an alleged constitutional scholar. But in fact this sentiment is completely in line with Wilson’s desire to interpret the Constitution “according to a Darwinian principle,” since humans have changed and society advanced so much that only a technocratic elite armed with new knowledge can be trusted to run society for everybody else, and to know what government “must do on your behalf.” What such a Constitution would be evolving from, of course, would be the idea of a limited federal government that respects the autonomy of citizens and states, and leaves them free to rule themselves and solve their own problems.
Consistent with this greater role for the federal government has been the expansion of executive power at the expense of Congress, evident in Obama’s unilateral rewriting, adapting, or ignoring the laws. This encroaching executive power is also a development the early Progressives explicitly called for. Long before he became President, Wilson dreamed of a national leader more evocative of Benito Mussolini than George Washington. Such a leader would “know what it is that lies waiting to be stirred in the minds and purposes of groups and masses of men,” and would use this knowledge “to command” men and discover “the external uses to which they may be put . . . There are men to be moved: how shall he move them?” Later, when writing specifically of the president’s powers, he complained that under the Constitution, “He was empowered [by the veto] to prevent bad laws, but he was not to be given an opportunity to make good ones.” Has any president since acted as vigorously on this anti-constitutional wish to bypass Congress and make laws by fiat than Barack Obama and his “pen and phone”? He has made 41 changes to the Affordable Care Act law alone, and more recently has threatened to take unilateral executive action on immigration, all in violation of the constitutional injunction that the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Obviously, an imperial president who “moves” men and knows better than they what is good for them is antithetical to the spirit of the Declaration and its principle of liberty possessed by humans as part of their human nature.
Finally, the bloated federal government and its regulatory regime also challenge the ideal of self-government and citizen autonomy celebrated in the Declaration and institutionalized in the Constitution. Just the Environmental Protection Agency alone enforces 7,000 rules that cost the economy $350 billion a year, and that doesn’t count Obama’s pending assault on coal-fired power plants. In 2012, the Federal Register, which publishes new rules and final changes to existing rules, weighed in at nearly 79,000 pages. The Code of Federal Regulations, which publishes permanent rules and regulations, totaled over 174,000, with over 1 million individual regulatory restrictions. The Competitive Enterprise Institute reckons the annual cost of obeying all these rules and regulations at $1.8 trillion a year. But more important than the cost of this regulatory behemoth backed by the coercive power of the government is the erosion of our freedom and autonomy, the very foundational principles of the Declaration. Indeed, it recalls the Declaration’s indictment of George III, who “erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”
Needless to say, all these Progressive assaults on the spirit of the Declaration and the structure of the Constitution have accelerated and worsened under Obama, and once again recall the Declaration’s condemnation of George III for “taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our government,” and for declaring himself “invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.” In short, the Obama administration has created a regime undermining the foundational principles of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The founders had a word for such an assault on freedom––tyranny.
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