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The Lesser Evil

November 8, 2001

Once, before appearing on a TV talk show, I was told I must not advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. Government. I hadn’t actually been planning to foment revolution, but this warning gave me an idea: “May I advocate the violent restoration of the Constitution?” I got no answer.

Some people think I’m a “purist,” or even a “fundamentalist,” for harping on the Constitution. Actually, it’s just the opposite. I’m willing to settle for the Constitution as a tolerable compromise. Really principled people, such as Lysander Spooner, the late, great Murray Rothbard, and a number of my living friends, consider the Constitution itself tyrannical, endowing the Federal Government with far too much power. (Don’t tell the children, but so did Patrick Henry.)

These are the real purists, and I honor them. My only point is that even if they’re right, returning to the Constitution — to a government strictly limited to its few enumerated powers — would be a huge improvement over the kind of government we have now. At this point I’d gratefully settle for that. I don’t ask much.

All I ask, really, is that our rulers, alias elected representatives, do that which they swear before Almighty God, staking their immortal souls on the promise, that they will do: uphold said Constitution. I think it’s actually rather patriotic — and even charitable — of me to hope that our rulers will stop damning themselves. But this seems to make me some sort of utopian. Who ever heard of a politician going to heaven?

[Breaker quote: Can a politician 
go to heaven?These gents (all right, there are a few ladies among them) think an oath of office is something to be taken as lightly as, say, a wedding vow. They probably felt a deeper sense of obligation when they took their college fraternity pledges. Only one member of Congress seems to read the Constitution and vote against proposed laws on grounds that they lack constitutional authorization: the Texas Republican Ron Paul. And he’s considered a bit of a crank even by his own party. Whenever I read that the House has approved something by a 434-to-1 vote, I check to see if the 1 is Ron Paul. It usually is.

Of course the government has long since decided that the Constitution must be interpreted with a certain latitude, which always means letting the government stretch its own powers as far as it pleases. This is the familiar idea that the Constitution is a “living document,” which is to say, a dead letter. How can it be “living” if it’s mere putty in the hands of the powerful? Really living things resist manipulation.

The Constitution is supposed to control the government, not vice versa. James Madison noted that the unwritten British Constitution could be changed at any time by a simple act of Parliament. Our Constitution, he said, would be better because it was an act of the people — remember “We the People”? — and would be “unalterable by the government.” Any amendment would require very broad popular support.

But today We the People wait for the government — often meaning five members of the U.S. Supreme Court — to decide what the Constitution is going to mean. After all, they’re the experts. We the People are only ... people.

And We the People don’t protest, don’t even notice any incongruity, when we’re assured that this rank elitism is “democracy” and “self-government.” We nod solemnly when we should be issuing a hearty horselaugh.

The current war is a good example. An emergency results from the government’s abuse of its powers, so the government claims new powers in order to cope with the emergency. And if you don’t support these claims, you’re unpatriotic; if you think the government’s foreign policy helped create this mess, you’re “blaming America first.”

In other words, we are expected to equate an unconstitutional government with the Constitution! Logic, anyone? Tyranny doesn’t have to mean a grumpy dictator with a funny mustache; it can be exercised by pleasant guys who shave and smile. Its essence is lawless government — government that makes countless laws because it recognizes no law above itself.

Without wishing to be disagreeable, I merely suggest that the Constitution is a lesser evil than a government that takes infinite liberties with it while pretending to honor it.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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