October 25th, 2010 // 4:00 am @ Oliver DeMille
DEMOCRATS, REPUBLICANS, AND INDEPENDENTS don’t agree on much, but most of them do believe in the excellence and effectiveness of the U.S. Constitution.
A group this diverse will, of course, have some disagreements on the details, but it is amazing how nearly all involved Americans support the document.
All agree that the Constitution catalyzed America’s growth to freedom, prosperity and world hegemony.
Freedom works, it turns out; the Constitution codified and structured freedom at a level unparalleled in world history (affiliate link).
For at least fifty years, however, two major groups have disagreed about the fundamental direction of the nation as it relates to the Constitution.
Conservatives have seen the Constitution as an ideal to live up to, and operated on the premise that the country must be careful not to stray too far from the original intent of the founders.
They resonate with such things as strong national defense, separations of power, and protections of property.
Liberals, in contrast, have in general felt that this great document guaranteed basic rights and due process, but that it was meant as a starting point from which to continually amend and improve our society.
They tend to focus on individual rights, equalities, and the democratic attitudes of the document.
As a third, newer group, independents, tend to want the United States to value original intent, yet also make improvements where they are wise and practical.
Vital Foundations of Freedom
In view of all this, there are a few things that are fundamentally vital to the success and maintenance of the U.S. Constitution.
If these vital things are lost or ignored, or even changed in any way, the system will break down and our freedoms will decrease. These vital foundations include:
- Separations of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches
- The independence of each branch
- Checks and balances
- Guarantees of freedom like “no ex post facto laws,” “no bills of attainder,” and the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights
- Separations of power between the federal and state governments
Over the years, some have argued that we are in danger of losing some of these vital foundations of constitutional freedom. Certainly there has been some weakening over time.
But for the most part, the vital facets of the Constitution have held strong.
Weakening the Constitution
Unfortunately, in just the past few years we have seen major affronts to these vital constitutional guarantees. And more amazingly, there has been little concern voiced in the media or among the American citizenry.
When we let our freedoms slip away without a fight or even without concern, we take freedom, prosperity and happiness away from our posterity.
What kind of people do that? Are we such people? These are questions each of us must face.
Moreover, the loss of these vital constitutional foundations are not issues of parties—most liberals, conservatives, greens, radicals, extremists, moderates, hawks, doves, independents and nearly everyone else is generally opposed to losing our freedoms.
So why do we sit by and let it just happen?
The answer is simple, although the reality is quite complex:
We tend to let our freedoms slip away because they are tucked away in documents and policies that we don’t ever deal with directly.
We either ignore current bills before Congress or, if we do get involved, we focus on the publicized issues instead of the many layers of complexity.
In short, we don’t read the fine print.
The Power of Fine Print
Many Americans ignore the fine print in job contracts and mortgage papers, blithely signing our signatures and trusting others to handle the details.
Consider how lax we are with proposed bills in Washington DC: They are written by someone we don’t know and voted on by people few of us will ever even meet.
What few people realize is that these things have direct and major impact on our lives!
The problem in modern America is not that an individual can’t make a difference, but that nearly all of us are too distracted to even consider trying.
It seems ridiculous, maybe, to think that regular people should read the fine print of proposed legislation and existing laws and try to improve them. It sounds extreme and even crazy to suggest that without such close scrutiny from the citizens our freedoms will be lost.
But it is still true. This is one of the things which makes the American founding generations so truly amazing! Yes, they sacrificed greatly in the Revolution.
But many nations have sacrificed mightily and still failed to be free. Yes, the founders wanted to protect themselves from the usurpation of Britain. But so has every other colony and group of people facing a dominating government.
Yes, the founders loved freedom and wanted to pass it on to their children and posterity. But who doesn’t?
Almost every human society has yearned deeply and sacrificed much to be free. However, the founding American generations did something that almost no others have ever done.
They read the fine print!
They taught their children to read bills, laws, court cases, legislative debates, executive decrees, and bureaucratic policies. They read them in schoolrooms and at home. They read them at picnics and by candlelight after a long day’s hard labor.
They said they would consider their children uneducated if they didn’t read such things.
Consider just one example, from a textbook read by all Vermont school children in 1794:
“All the children are trained up to this kind of knowledge: they are accustomed from their earliest years to read the Holy Scriptures, the periodical publications, newspapers, and political pamphlets…the laws of their country, the proceedings of the courts of justice, of the general assembly of the state, and of the Congress, etc.
“Such a kind of education is common and universal in every part of the state: and nothing would be more dishonorable to the parents, or to the children, than to be without it.”
Now, in fairness to most human societies who wanted to be free, the regular people through much of history couldn’t read at all.
The founders understood this, so the first federal law passed under the newly ratified U.S. Constitution required any territory seeking statehood to show that it had an effective educational offering for all children.
They considered it a great blessing of providence that they could read and had the opportunity to pass on education to nearly all Americans. They saw this as a fundamental requirement for freedom.
They mourned for the many generations of humans throughout history who had no chance at freedom because education was denied them or simply unavailable.
But what would the founders think of three generations of today’s Americans who can read, who live in relative affluence, have ample leisure time, but who choose to ignore government documents?
I think they would be shocked, and then angry.
After the painful price they paid to establish a free nation; the many sacrifices of their families and lives, imagine their frustration that today’s Americans won’t even read what the government is doing.
Eventually, after their anger wore off, I think they would resign themselves to this reality: Unless Americans start reading government documents again, we will lose our freedom—again.
In case this sounds extreme, let me reiterate that the founding generations read government documents, in detail, from all three branches, including all levels from federal, to state, to local.
Then they raised their children to do the same. It was second nature to them because they wanted to remain free.
Free people read the fine print. Then they act on it. To put it simply: those who don’t, do not remain free.
This is the reality of history, from Ancient Israel to the Greeks, Saracens, Franks, Anglo-Saxons and every other free society in history.
I can find no exceptions.
In fact, in mixed societies with classes or castes of both freemen and subservients (like in Athens or the Roman Republic), only the upper classes read government documents; and only the upper classes were free citizens.
In just the past two years we have seen three of the major vital foundations of constitutional freedom ignored.
People who don’t read government documents, or at the very least printed media reports about government documents, aren’t even aware of these structural implosions in our constitutional system.
They have no idea of the tragedy ahead unless these things are reversed.
Moreover, people who don’t read government documents are often swayed by the anger of politicians or mass media so that they think violating the Constitution is okay if the nation is mad enough.
For example, the vital constitutional foundation of “no bills of attainder” was broken in the wake of national anger at Wall Street after the economic meltdown of 2008-2009. Even those who knew it was broken felt it was justified given Wall Street’s mistakes.
But when we let the government break the Constitution because we are really mad, we will soon watch it break the Constitution when somebody else is mad.
This reminds me of the old story of the so-called unaffected groups who ignored Hitler’s men while they took the Jews, then the foreigners, the gypsies, the handicap, and the white collar professionals, only to wonder why no one was there to help when Hitler’s men finally came to their house.
The moral of the story? Stand up for the Jews, or any other group unjustly attacked. That is the character of people who will remain free.
Because we were so angry at Wall Street after the economic crisis, we also ignored or just accepted the “ex post facto” laws unconstitutionally passed and applied in 2009.
That’s two strikes against the Constitution, and in less than a year!
The third strike came in the health care law.
Now, before I say more, let me be clear that I did not side with either the Democratic law as it was passed or with the argument from the Republicans that health care need not be reformed. Reform was necessary, but the way it was done is a major problem.
Some Democrats, some Republicans, and a lot of independents agreed with this. There is a lot more that could be said on this, point-by-point on every facet of the law. But that isn’t my purpose here.
My deepest concern is with the fact that public sentiment regarding such policies and issues as immigration, marriage, detainment/torture, health care, finance reform, foreign military campaigns, etc., is governed by the tidal forces of activism and apathy—neither of which is delving into the fine print details in the laws that strike a major blow to the most vital foundations of the Constitution.
Using the Health Care Reform law as a case in point: The Constitution separated the powers of the federal government from others that would be left to the states or lower levels, or the people.
This is as fundamental to our freedoms as separating the executive, judicial, and legislative branches, or outlining specific checks and balances.
Take away the provision of separating state and federal powers, and the whole Constitution is in danger of failing.
Later, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could take some actions within states under the commerce clause, but only the states had the right to require individual citizens to buy a good or service.
The Court also ruled in Gonzales v. Oregon that the federal government does not have the authority to “define general standards of medical practice in every locality.” It also “has recognized a right to medical self-determination, notably finding it within the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause.”
The health care law is the first federal law to break these, and it sets a dangerous precedent for the future.
In short, if this stands, future U.S Presidents and Congress can add one or two sentences in any bill at any time that requires Americans to do or buy anything—and pretty much nobody is likely to know until the law is passed.
Each new generation is acclimatized to the level of government overreach that they find themselves in, and it rarely occurs to them to object.
The Overseers of Freedom
Some might argue that our elected representatives should keep an eye on such things and take care of them for us.
True enough; except for one thing: Despite of all their good intentions and willingness to step up and lead, most of these representatives are ultimately just like “us”; they are not much more inclined than the general population to read the fine print!
Contributing to this brand of governance is the status quo climate that slaps an “extremist” label on those who do try to raise concerns about the process or consequence of our legislative and regulatory trends.
The bottom line is that our elected officials often fail to do anything about these fine-print additions to legislation.
Sometimes, even when such things are taken out of bills, the agencies which implement these laws simply write them back into their operating policies and enforce them anyway—even though they are not technically law.
The founding generations read resolutions, bills, laws, policies, executive orders, ordinances, court cases and judicial commentaries on cases.
They wanted to be free, so they did what free people always do: They read the documents of government. They studied the fine print.
Where they saw dangers to freedom, they took action.
Unfortunately, too often any criticism of a political party’s policy is interpreted by people as an attack on that party. In this case, it is not my purpose to criticize President Obama’s push for health care reform.
I am simply concerned with the way this law treats the U.S. Constitution.
Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush also promoted policies that could have threatened constitutional principles.
It is the role of politicians to promote policies and changes they feel are needed, and at times these push the envelope of the Constitution.
Congress and the Court must do their constitutional role of analyzing and responding to such proposals, but ultimately it is up to the people to be the Overseers—to protect freedom.
Societies where the regular people aren’t allowed to read or comment on the laws are Totalitarian, Authoritarian, Dictatorial or Communistic.
Societies where the regular people are allowed to read and comment on the government and law, but instead decide to leave it to others, most often adopt aristocracy or socialism.
In contrast, if we want to be free, we must read the fine print.
Freedom only lasts in societies where regular citizens:
- read government documents, think about and discuss them
- do something to change them when needed
- teach their children to do the same.
If we become such people, the future of freedom is bright. If not…
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.