And yet, neglected as they are, these questions are very important, which is why I picked this topic for my first substantive post. Failure on our part to ask these questions, and to insist upon real answers, lies at the heart of why we are in the unpleasant mess we are in today. The Founders knew, from their study of history, that unchecked government was dangerous, and that governments in general trended to become corrupt. Our present woes are in some part the result of past and present generation's failures to strictly constrain government action, and to insist that our government servants strictly obey the constraints placed on their power.
When one considers any proposed government activity, be it law, regulation, ordinance or what have you, the first questions one ought to ask are: “What function of government is this serving? Should the government be doing such things?” But in order to understand the answers to these kinds of questions, one must know what the legitimate functions of government are.
Thomas Jefferson laid this out for all of us in the Declaration of Independence, which reads in part- “That all men are….endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” This means that the first duty of government is to protect our natural rights, which are pre-existing and not dependent upon anybody else. The right to own, use and dispose of property is the most basic right on which all others depend. This being so, the government’s most important function, it’s ‘Prime Directive’ is to defend property rights.
The mantra of the Enlightenment was “Life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson broadened this to “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as the right to property was almost universally recognized as the basis for most other natural rights. Everyone understood that principle, when the Declaration was written. Free speech, the right to self defense, the right to free assembly, all stem from that basic right. Note that demands on the property of others, such as “free” health care, strike at the concept of property rights and are therefore not individual rights at all. In general, any such attempt to force anyone else to do anything against their will is not a right.
Later on, during the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, (about which I will write more at a future time) some specific restrictions on the power of government, as well as some broader constraints on government power, were enacted as the first ten amendments to the proposed Constitution. These amendments are commonly known as the Bill of Rights, but really ought to have another name, because they aren’t simply a list of the rights we each possess, but rather constraints against a grant of power to the new Federal government. The tenth Amendment, in particular, states that any power not specifically delegated to the Federal government or the State government was reserved to the people.
The Constitution also references the common law, meaning the English common law, on which all early American jurisprudence was based. The common law, widely ignored today, is a set of principles which were widely if not universally recognized, time tested rules used by people to interact with one another. For a good beginning discussion of common law, see Richard Mayberry’s “Whatever happened to Justice?” For those interested in a more in-depth treatment Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England"is probably still the best reference.
To recap, the founding document of these united States stated that the function of government was to protect individual rights, and the US Constitution, the highest law of the land, states that the Federal government has only those powers which it has been given under the Constitution. All other powers are reserved to the States or the people. To YOU!
So the next time someone tells you that you should support a new law or regulation, because ‘it will make things better!' regardless of the apparent merit of the law, ask yourself, “Where does the government get the power to do this?" “Is this one of the powers specifically granted to the government under the Constitution?" "Why should I surrender any more of my rights to the government?" If you cannot clearly see how this is something the government has been given permission to do, ask the person promoting this new law how the government got the authority to do whatever it is that they are proposing. (the reaction to this question is frequently amusing!) You might also ask yourself who will benefit from the proposed legislation; usually, such legislation amounts to establishing special privileges for some small portion of We the People, at the expense of everyone else.
You might also start to think about what we are going to do about all the unjustifiable powers that the government has taken that they haven’t been given, but that is a question to be discussed another day.
From Liberty Hollow,