By John W. Whitehead
Precisely because Americans are easily distracted—because, as study after study shows, they are clueless about their rights—and because the nation’s schools have ceased teaching the fundamentals of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights—the American governmental scheme is sliding ever closer toward authoritarianism.
This is taking place with little more than a whimper from an increasingly compliant populace that, intentionally or not, has allowed itself to be brainwashed into trusting their politicians.
If the people have little or no knowledge of the basics of government and their rights, those who wield governmental power inevitably wield it excessively. After all, a citizenry can only hold its government accountable if it knows when the government oversteps its bounds.
The following seven principles—ones that every American should know—undergird the American system of government and form the basis for the freedoms our forefathers fought and died for. They are a good starting point for understanding what free government is really all about.
First, the maxim that power corrupts is an absolute truth. Realizing this, those who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights held one principle sacrosanct: a distrust of all who hold governmental power.
As James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights, proclaimed, “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.” Moreover, in questions of power, Thomas Jefferson warned, “Let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
The second principle (one that has largely been turned on its head over the past several decades) is that governments primarily exist to secure rights, an idea that is central to constitutionalism. In appointing the government as the guardian of the people’s rights, the people give it only certain, enumerated powers, which are laid out in a written constitution.
The idea of a written constitution actualizes the two great themes of the Declaration of Independence: consent and protection of equal rights. Thus, the purpose of constitutionalism is to limit governmental power and ensure that the government performs its basic function: to preserve and protect our rights, especially our unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and our civil liberties.
The third principle revolves around the belief that no one is above the law, not even those who make the law. This is termed rule of law. Richard Nixon’s statement, “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal,” would have been an anathema to the Framers of the Constitution. If all people possess equal rights, the people who live under the laws must be allowed to participate in making those laws. By that same token, those who make the laws must live under the laws they make.
Separation of powers ensures that no single authority is entrusted with all the powers of government. People are not perfect, whether they are in government or out of it. As history makes clear, those in power tend to abuse it. The government is thus divided into three co-equal branches: legislative, executive and judicial. Placing all three powers in the same branch of government was considered the very definition of tyranny.
A system of checks and balances, essential if a constitutional government is to succeed, strengthens the separation of powers and prevents legislative despotism. Such checks and balances include dividing Congress into two houses, with different constituencies, term lengths, sizes and functions; granting the president a limited veto power over congressional legislation; and appointing an independent judiciary capable of reviewing ordinary legislation in light of the written Constitution, which is referred to as “judicial review.”
The Framers feared that Congress could abuse its powers and potentially emerge as the tyrannous branch because it had the power to tax. But they did not anticipate the emergence of presidential powers as they have come to dominate modern government or the inordinate influence of corporate powers on governmental decision-making.
Representation allows the people to have a voice in government by sending elected representatives to do their bidding while avoiding the need of each and every citizen to vote on every issue considered by government. In a country as large as the United States, it is not feasible to have direct participation in governmental affairs. Hence, we have a representative government. If the people don’t agree with how their representatives are conducting themselves, they can and should vote them out.
Federalism is yet another constitutional device to limit the power of government by dividing power and, thus, preventing tyranny. In America, the levels of government generally break down into federal, state and local branches (which further divide into counties and towns or cities). Because local and particular interests differ from place to place, such interests are better handled at a more intimate level by local governments, not a bureaucratic national government.
Remarking on the benefits of the American tradition of local self-government in the 1830s, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people’s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it. Without local institutions a nation may give itself a free government, but it has not got the spirit of liberty.”
These seven vital principles have been largely forgotten in recent years, obscured by the haze of a centralized government, a citizenry that no longer thinks analytically, and schools that don’t adequately teach our young people about their history and their rights. Yet here’s the rub: while Americans wander about oblivious in their brainwashed states, their “government of the people, by the people and for the people” is being taken away from them.
The answer: get un-brainwashed. Learn your rights. Stand up for the founding principles. Make your voice and your vote count. If need be, vociferously protest the erosion of your freedoms at the local and national level. Most of all, do these things today. Tomorrow will most likely be too late.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks) is now available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org
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