Skip to comments.(Vanity) A Republic, If You Can Keep It, or Go Fly A Kite
Posted on 03/25/2007 6:35:56 AM PDT by grey_whiskers
It has been recorded that sometime around the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked the question, Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy? Franklins reply was both laconic and prophetic. He answered, A republic, if you can keep it.
There have been a number of threats to our Republicfrom the Barbary Pirates ( to the shores of Tripoli) to The War of 1812. The growing pains of the early 1800s and divisions over slavery and States Rights, culminating the in temporary dissolution of the Union and the Civil War. World War I and II; the Cold War; and the current Sitzkrieg of the War on Terror.
But not all of the threats to the country have been external. Doubtless Franklin was concerned about the shifting tides of political fortune, and the necessity of currying favor with the great European monarchiesremember the French revolution still hadnt happened yet. But there was another, more insidious enemy which the founding fathers saw and took pains to thwart. This of course was the pain of creeping government encroaching on freedomand of course, all with the best of intentions.
There are a number of fine libertarian expositions of this sentiment; as well as a number of similar discussions by conservatives. One oft-rehearsed scenario is that put forth by deTocqueville: America will last until the populace discovers that it can vote for itself largesse out of the public treasury. And indeed, there was for a time within the American government the will to resist such temptations, even with the best of intentions. For example, one might point to the famous speech by Davy Crockett when debating a special bill to appropriate $10,000 in relief for the widow of a naval officer(yes, that Davy Crockett; who knew that he was so eloquent?) :
We must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. I will not attempt to prove that Congress has no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money.
Who would have believed, given that beginning, that we would have fallen so far, so soon? I blame the Bolsheviks. (Hat tip to Ann Coulter and her book Treason for illustrating the depth and pervasiveness of the penetration of the United States government under Roosevelt.) And of course, the Communists have always been hypocrites: From each according to his means, to each according to his needs. Yeah, right. Like Ted Kennedy or John François Kerry ever gave any of their own money to help the less fortunate. But of course they are quite noble for spending our money on the same goalsafter taking out a hefty collective finders fee for themselves and their apparatchik patronage-job constituents.
Why have we fallen so far? Alas, that is a sad tale, worthy of being penned by Tolkein himself. To cover it fully, we must delve back a little in history, and consider both the political and the philosophical underpinnings of the American Revolution.
Look first at the situation faced by the enterprising citizens of Englands colonies in the New World in the early and mid 1700s. England regarded America as a territorial bulwark against the French, a costly adventure, and a source of revenue, all at the same time. As a result, the relationship between the colonists and the crown was multi-faceted: taxes were quite common, including taxes on tea, import taxes, and taxes such as the Stamp Tax which today would come across like the additional dealer markup line item on the sticker of a new car. And added to all the taxes, there were the additional indignities of having Army troops board in ones house; capricious searches; star chamber trials; and being compelled to testify against ones own interest. Sound familiar? The Bill of Rights was more than a pretext for the ACLU, or a cliché from history class. It was an answer to real abuses and outrages fresh in the minds of the founders.
Look next at the philosophical underpinnings. The doctrine of the Divine Rights of Kings was being questioned; with the Reformation, then the Enlightenment, various doctrines about the perfectability of man, and the possibility of a perfect society on earth was being noised about. In contrast to the French Revolution (which closely followed the American Revolution), our Founding Fathers did not overthrow a monarchy by terror, nor were they interested in enthroning the goddess Reason. Instead, knowing that man (and men) are fallible, they wisely devised the government of the United States to operate by a system of checks and balances. They correctly foresaw that if any one faction, or organizational element, of the government, acquired too much power, the freedoms listed in the Constitution would fall in temporal (though not eternal) jeopardy. So the government was designed with competing centers of power, each of which could be used to retard the power of the others. And overarching this, a program of regular elections in order that the leaders be held accountable to the will of the people. And finally, over this, the presence of a Republic: only certain individuals would vote for the office holders (the Electoral College) and only certain people would be allowed to vote for the electorsthus minimizing the possibility of demagoguery. Oh, and to make doubly sure of things, the Constitution allowed for itself to be amended: but even that only by a very cumbersome exercise.
And thus, for many years, the Republic has been kept. But yet, as stated before, it seems that we have drifted from the original moorings. Like the old joke goes, the Constitution may not be much, but at least its better than what we have now. What then is the secret flaw in the Constitution? The answer is that while the different branches of government do have checks and balances upon each other, these checks and balances are not automatic: their exercise is based upon a deliberate choice of one or the other branches of government. And if people of a similar mind-set manage over time to get into positions of power and influence in more than one branch of government at the same time, then the checks and balances of these branches one upon another become inactive. And that itself can lead to the encroachment of government power upon liberty. Thomas Jefferson said it well :
Mankind soon learn to make interested uses of every right and power which they possess, or may assume. The public money and public liberty, intended to have been deposited with three branches of magistracy, but found inadvertently to be in the hands of one only, will soon be discovered to be sources of wealth and dominion to those who hold them; distinguished, too, by this tempting circumstance, that they are the instrument, as well as the object of acquisition. With money we will get men, said Caesar, and with men we will get money. Nor should our assembly be deluded by the integrity of their own purposes, and conclude that these unlimited powers will never be abused, because themselves are not disposed to abuse them. They should look forward to a time, and that not a distant one, when a corruption in this, as in the country from which we derive our origin, will have seized the heads of government, and be spread by them through the body of the people; when they will purchase the voices of the people, and make them pay the price.
There is one other point which needs to be made about this: and that is the power of the bureaucracy. Congress itself has largely passed the point of personal accountability to ones constituents: each Congressional seat represents the so many people that the law of averages kicks in, and unless the Representative does something really stupid (even drowning a girlfriend accidentally, or having a freezer full of cash is not always enough), they are likely to retain power. And of course, the development of Caucuses and party pecking orders, the practice of near-lifetime tenure (with lifetime healthcare and pensions), and the detestable fraud of Gerrymandering, only make things worse. The representatives NO LONGER represent the people, but in name only. And too often, the laws are made by unelected, anonymous (and therefore unaccountable) functionaries. (*) In fact, too often, the representatives attitude toward mere citizens is inspired by Franklins scientific endeavors: as far as the Congressman is concerned, we can all go fly a kite.
Where does this leave us? Stay tuned for a later installment which looks at this in more detail.
(*) An interesting and prescient quotation in this regard comes from John Lockes Second Treatise of Government §141, 1689:
The power of the Legislative being derived from the People by a positive voluntary Grant and Institution, can be no other, than what that positive Grant conveyed, which being only to make Laws, and not to make Legislators, the Legislative can have no power to transfer their Authority of making Laws, and place it in other hands.
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