Salter: The constitution and the concept of liberty –

Posted: September 20, 2021 at 9:32 am

ALEXANDER SALTER| Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

In a democracy, public policy rests on the consent of the governed. The great economist James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize in 1986, wrote that the status quo matters in a democracy because its from that point--wherever we happen to be--that the conversation about policy change begins. Our starting point, here and now, is the U.S. Constitution: its text, duly ratified amendments, and judicially interpreted meaning.

For lovers of liberty, the Constitution is an impressive document. Although lacking in some ways compared to the Articles of Confederation, our current national charter has the clear benefit of durability. The Constitution has been the basic law of the land for 232 years. Many of those years were prosperous. Some were tumultuous and destructive. The Constitution endured it all. It provides the basic backdrop of order against which liberty finds its meaning.

Libertarians like me admire the Constitution. We just wish our fellow citizens admired it as much as we do! While the Constitution isnt a fully libertarian document, its arguably the most pro-freedom compact in existence. When libertarians have a problem with the Constitution, its usually because too many politicians, bureaucrats, and sadly even voters ignore parts of the text they dont like.

The ways in which the Constitution protects freedom are obvious. Separation of powers and checks and balances are built into our governance system. This makes it incredibly difficult for political coalitions to seize absolute control of the government. And even if they do, the Bill of Rights, buttressed by the courts, stand guard over the citizenry. We Americans cherish our rights to speak freely, assemble freely, worship freely. We take pride in our protections against arbitrary seizure of property. And we know that these rights are natural rights, given to us by God. The Constitution recognizes them, but does not establish them.

In fact, the 9th Amendment explicitly says this: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. In other words, the rights of the people are far too numerous to list. Just because the Framers didnt write down a specific right doesnt mean we dont have that right. The Constitution is meant to limit the government, not the citizens.

Another support for liberty is the 10th Amendment: 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. While libertarians lament the omission of the word expressly from this amendment, its nonetheless a demonstration of the Founders fondness for federalism. That government which governs best governs closest to the citizens themselves.

What parts of the Constitution do libertarians dislike? There are a few: the Necessary and Proper Clause, the Commerce Clause, and an unlimited power of taxation are the most obvious cases. The Necessary and Proper Clause, unless carefully interpreted, could easily result in an almost-unlimited federal government. Likewise, the Commerce Clause has been used to justify federal meddling in any situation which could conceivably--not even actually!--affect trade across the United States. The lack of strict controls on the taxing power has resulted in tax rates that are downright confiscatory. All of these yield a government that is too big, too intrusive, and too powerful.

But we oughtnt throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Constitution remains a respectable governance framework for a free and virtuous people. We can work within the Constitutional system to preserve its strengths and shore up its weaknesses. Unfortunately, the greatest obstacle to Constitutional renewal is the mass of politicians who are sworn to uphold it.

Republicans and Democrats are quick to praise the Constitution on the campaign trail or at a fundraiser. But when it comes to governing, their policies are a Constitutional disgrace. One is reminded of the prophecy of Isaiah: These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. The sad reality is that government-run-amok is a bipartisan consensus. No party believes in keeping Washington, DC within the bounds of the Constitution. Many libertarians became libertarian because theyve had enough of our political duopolys two-step between Constitutional rhetoric and un-Constitutional policy.

The Constitution isnt perfect. No governing document is. But thanks to the Constitution, life, liberty, and property have been reasonably secure in the United States for more than two centuries. Libertarians seek to rein in the federal government by forcing it to follow the law of the land. While we can be reformist in our political programs, we must be radical in our aims.

American exceptionalism comes down to the rule of law: the idea that governed and governors alike must play by the same rules. Libertarians demand, as a matter of natural right, nothing less than the restoration of the rule of law. A crucial first step is to reinstate Constitutional constraints on government. Any other way of governing is profoundly un-American.

Alexander William Salter is the Georgie G. Snyder Associate Professor of Economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University and the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTUs Free Market Institute.

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Salter: The constitution and the concept of liberty -

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