If you’ve never wondered about why our government exists then perhaps it is time. We are now in a period of transition; the unanswerable question is what will come from it?
Our founding fathers, in the preamble to the Constitution said,
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Have we reached a point where these words no longer have meaning, and have lost their ability to bind us together as a nation? We are at a point where the centrists have left the stage, and the radicals have chosen riot, rather than debate, as the means of communication. The institutions we have historically looked to for our views of the world have chosen sides and news is replaced by opinion.
On the one side, there are those who would have “the government” be the nexus of all things. They display a willingness to surrender their personal freedoms for the illusions of safety and expert control, placing their trust in a benevolent leadership. In the process, they would forsake the traditional institutions of religion, and coopt the educational system, both of which served in the past to moderate the growth and abuse of power.
The opposition must take the position of limiting government and the power it wields, opening it to attack from those who have come to expect a continuation of government largess, without consequence. Everyone, it seems, loves the idea of paying no taxes and getting all the benefits of using other people’s money.
The Democratic party has pretty much admitted it stands for little, or nothing, except to gain power for those who control the party. (Perhaps this has always been true, and now is now just more apparent.)
The Republican Party, is currently a fractured caricature of what it once was. It seems apparent they have no clear and unifying understanding of either the needs of the nation, or the path to secure those needs. It has proven itself great at complaining about the abuses of power by their opponents, but as we have seen, when it comes to actually legislating they have neither plan, nor the leadership to secure the “Blessings of Liberty” so desired by our founders.
Adding to the challenges of the traditional opposing political parties is the advent of a populist President who speaks to the concerns and fears of the average middle-aged working man and woman. The very people the political elite have cast aside as they talk among themselves about the grand future of their parties and the utopia they will create.
Another element muddying the waters of political discourse is the rise of the religious right. A growing force since the 1970’s. It has become almost completely aligned with the Republican Party as the Democratic National Committee has moved further and further from its traditional “everyman” approach.
From this shift left comes the continuing attacks on what many centrists view as simple cultural norms, like the traditional holidays, but what the non- traditional religious and atheists view as state endorsement of a religion. The courts have sided with their concerns often enough to provide the foundation for the religious activist’s belief the churches must engage politically if they are to survive.
These almost daily legal battles ultimately end up in the legislatures as the politicians align with what they believe to be their most supportive constituents. Oft times writing laws that are ill advised, or even counterproductive.
It has become apparent to me, and perhaps others, the political parties increasingly fail at providing the common people with a viable representative government. Each party is bought and paid for by to serve their sponsors interests. Couple this with the obvious self-interest for power and wealth on the part of the politicians themselves, and we have the perfect condition for institutional corruption. One has only to look at the alumni of the Office of President, or the wealth accumulation of career politicians in Congress to see the obvious truth of this assertion.
We see in the class structure of our nation an increasing divide, where the traditional ideals of hard work, and ambition will no longer enable someone to migrate from the poor, to the middle class, or to the wealthy as was the promise of the past. The question no one seems to consider is was that a reality, or just an illusion used to foster a unity of purpose? I think the answer should be obvious. The wealthy have always made up the 1%, but the ability to live comfortably and move from abject poverty was a real possibility for those who had the ambition, drive, and courage to seek change.
The Democrats have, for at least the past 10 years, talked about the wealth of the 1% and the poverty of the poorest, as if being wealthy is bad, and the poor are always victims of an unfair system who have no control over their status. Remarkably the same time the Democratic politicians are blaming the rich; they have their hands out for campaign contributions while writing legislation that will affect those they are soliciting funds from. What is the expectation of all those who contribute? Is it just a magnanimous and humanitarian concern?
The Republicans talk about reducing taxes, while giving lip service to the idea of reducing government, and like the Democrats they too have their hands out while blaming big government and writing legislation that will benefit the wealthy. How important is the idea of reducing taxes for the growing percentage of Americans who pay no taxes? With Republican control of the Congress they could have reduced the deficit through spending reductions on non-entitlement programs, but a Representative or Senator is elected to bring home the bacon (or pork) so why on earth would either party ever cut funding. Especially now that they have convinced us that just slowing the growth of a program is called a cut. Recently, my Representative claimed with all sincerity the House had passed the 2018 budget that would balance the budget in only 10 years. Hmm, where have I heard that before? With nine more budgets to pass, four more elections to hold, and an unknown global future I’m guessing in 9 years he will be claiming similar success is only 10 years away.
Neither party talks very much about the decay of the American dream where initiative is rewarded and a family has the opportunity to thrive and prosper without fear of a bank taking their home, or an employer laying them off to hire new workers at the minimum wage. One party wants to open our borders to all, when we don’t have employment for those who are citizens, while the other wants to seal to border to those they view as threats. As in most things these days, neither party wants to concede an inch and find reasonable balance to national employment, security, and immigration.
Sorry, I got a little side tracked there. Let’s get back to talking about the meaning of the Preamble.
So, I come to the two questions, how do we understand the terms justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, and general welfare, and what is the role we expect of our government? Fueled by a myopic media we, as a nation, seem increasingly unable to come to agreement over what the they should mean and what ideal they should represent.
Justice – at our founding, the original colonies had all experienced the rule of English law, where there was one set of expectations for the royalty and another for the commoner. They had also imported, as their inheritance, the concept of “common law” as adjusted to the conditions of the colonies. But as James Stoner[i] discusses in his commentary we have twisted the meaning of common law, and just as we seem to be twisting the meaning of common justice. As proponents of “natural law” where the rights of the people come not from the state, but from a higher power (or nature if you prefer), then the ideal of equal justice for all would be foundational in their beliefs and would serve as a safeguard for the abuse of the state. This was clearly their intent in the establishment of the checks and balances provided by organizing the government into three independent but interrelated branches. Unfortunately, the execution of justice is left to us as a society, along with all our bias and hatred. We may choose men and women who promise fairness to judge the law, but we see often they fall short when it comes to the having the wisdom of Solomon. Slowly, perhaps imperceptibly at first, the common expectation of equal justice is eroded until one day we awake to find the political class is judged with a standard that differs from those who are not politically connected. We are now at that point as we see with both the current and past administrations. We are at a time where regardless of the public evidence of corruption a politically connected candidate will not be prosecuted, or despite a lack of hard evidence another will be continuously vilified, leaving the average man or woman to question the standards of justice this nation would have. I’ve purposely left the issue of race and justice out of this paragraph for that begs for a much larger discussion. Can a minority race receive equal treatment under the law? I am sure everyone has their own answer to that question, but the simple fact there are multiple answers would suggest in the larger sense a loss of faith in the underlying principle of equal justice.
Domestic Tranquility, what the heck is that? Is it the same thing as “Happy wife, happy life?” Well it kind of is. When the revolution ended, we established the Confederation of States, where the individual colonies maintained a great deal of autonomy. The federal government (much like the UN of today) had no real means to ensure the states cooperated with each other beyond brokering consensus. We also had no means of quelling a resurrection should one occur. These failures in our first government weighed heavily into the debates and concerns of the constitutional convention and led to the provisions within the constitution that placed limits on the states and gave the President and Congress the ability to quell rebellion (e.g. the Whisky Rebellion[ii])
Providing for the Common Defense. This is, at least in my opinion, the simplest of the purposes of government. Sovereignty is an interesting concept. Throughout our history there have been very few years when our sovereignty has not been challenged by one group or another. Without the means to defend ourselves would we exist today as an independent nation? We’ve fought two wars with the English regarding our rights to exist, then there were the Barbary pirates who sought tribute and ransom, but as often as not we’ve used our military to achieve the political will of the day. For example, when we annexed Texas and Mexico took umbrage, or when Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay. In neither case was the employment of the military narrowly defined as “defensive.” Today, our sovereignty is challenged by Islamic terrorism, and the defense of our nation is addressed by the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State, as well as the CIA.
Finally, we come to that catch all phrase, promoting the General Welfare. I share the views of Adam J. Bulava,[iii] writing in his blog “The Government Teacher” when he discusses the framers intent, and the conflict between unlimited and limited government. He notes its origins lie in the classic philosophy, regarding putting the common good ahead of the desires of special interests. Was it the framers intent that this phrase justifies an unlimited expanse of government? There is sufficient other indication in the Constitution and the Federalist papers to lay to rest the idea the framers ever imagined Government as having unlimited power.
So, we come to today. As the power of the government expands and the desires of the special interests are cried out with increasing demands and authority to that government, the question remains “What do we expect of our government?”
Clearly, we are willing to overlook the sins of those we favor, while we condemn those we dislike. The Democratic candidate’s collusion, or the Republican President’s collusion are two sides of the same coin, yet we hear in the media completely different levels of acceptance or tolerance. Clearly the needs of the general population are given little consideration by the public advocates who gain so much air time in the various media outlets.
To turn John F. Kennedy’s phrase around, ask not what you can do for your government, ask what your government is doing to you. If we are to survive we must find a way to move from the extremes, and this cannot happen if we, the average citizen, support only the extreme positions our favored political party is moving to.