When I start talking about the fact that the federal government lacks the constitutional authority to do things like fund public television or monitor a cell phones without a warrant, somebody will inevitably counter with the following statement:
“The founders never anticipated things like television and cell phones, or any of the other technological advances of the last 200-plus years. We have to give the federal government the flexibility to deal with these things.”
But these folks ignore that fact that the framers created a mechanism to allow the Constitution to evolve with the changing times – the amendment process. When lawmakers feel the advancement of technology necessitates additional powers, they should first go to the people, let them decide, and if they deem it necessary, amend the Constitution to delegate the requisite power.
Of course, it’s true that the framers could never have imagined all of the technological and societal advances that would occur in the United States over the course of time. And the amendment process makes it pretty clear that they recognized the Constitution would not, and should not, remain static. But the framers did understand some things do not change – among them, basic human nature. They understood that, as Lord Acton eloquently put it, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For that reason, the framers created, and the people of the states approved, a government of limited powers and included numerous checks on the few powers that were delegated.
While technology and society might evolve, it is imperative we keep in place those basic checks on power.
Allowing the federal government to take on roles without proper authority sets a precedent that leads to larger and larger power grabs. Slowly but surely, the states and the people find themselves completely divested of power. Thomas Jefferson saw the beginnings of this process in the earliest days of the Republic. In a letter to Nathanial Macon, the third president wrote,
Our government is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction; to wit: by consolidation first and then corruption, its necessary consequence. The engine of consolidation will be the Federal judiciary; the two other branches the corrupting and corrupted instruments.
While the framers couldn’t foresee the Internet, airplanes or nuclear weapons, they did firmly grasp human nature and the ever-present danger of consolidated power. And they drafted a Constitution meant to check that danger. If we continue to ignore constitutional restraint, and allow the federal government to relentlessly grow and accumulate authority, it will ultimately destroy the very essence of America.
St. George Tucker wrote the first systematic commentary on the U.S. Constitution in 1803. He offers and eerily prophetic warning.
Slight, and sometimes even imperceptible, innovations, occasional usurpations, founded upon the pretended emergency of the occasion: or upon former unconstitutional precedents; the introduction of the doctrines of constructive grants of power: of the duty of self-preservation in a government, however constituted, or however limited; of the right of eminent domain, (or in other words, absolute power,) in all governments; these, with the stale pretense of the dangers to be apprehended from the giddy multitude in democratic governments, and a thousand other pretexts and arguments of the same stamp, form the ladder by which the agents of the people mount over the heads of their constituents and finally ascend to that pinnacle of authority and power, from whence they behold those who have raised them with contempt, and treat them with indignation and insult.
I’ve been accused of living in the past. But it seems to me too many Americans have forgotten the timeless truths of the past in their rush to embrace the future.
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