We all have people in our lives who influence not just what we believe, but how we think. For me one of those people is economist and author Walter Williams. Dr. Williams is one of a handful of people who have helped shape the way I think about economics, history and government. Lately I’ve been thinking about a point that I have seen him make on several occasions.
I came across this point while reading a collection of Williams’ essays in a book titled Liberty Versus the Tyranny of Socialism. It comes from a February 9, 2005 column in which Williams criticizes then-President Bush for ignoring the boundaries of the Constitution in his proposals for disaster relief. The key point that stuck in my mind comes from this section of the column:
“Today’s politicians can’t be held fully responsible for our abandonment of constitutional government. While they can be blamed for not being statesmen, the lion’s share of the blame rests with 280 million Americans. Elected officials simply mirror public misunderstanding or contempt for constitutional principles. Tragically, adherence to…constitutional values…would spell political suicide in today’s America.”
In a 2011 interview, Williams reiterated the point and shared how this idea, an “epiphany” as he calls it, was illustrated to him in a conversation with the late Jesse Helms, a Senator from North Carolina. As Williams tells it, Helms explained why he supported unconstitutional agriculture subsidies this way: “He said, ‘Walter, I agree with you 100% that these farm subsidies ought to be eliminated.’ But then he asked, ‘Can you tell me how I can remain the senator from North Carolina and vote against them? If I do what you say, I would be voted out of office.’” Williams continues, “Politicians who talk about cutting these programs are going to run into trouble. We have to get the American people, as much as politicians, to respect the Constitution.”
I think that most people agree with the idea that politicians’ brazenness in ignoring the Constitution has its roots in a population that sees the federal government as a kind of magic genie. Where most of us struggle is in coming to the point where we prefer the restoration of the Constitution to using the federal government to legislate our preferences. As difficult as this process is, it is essential that supporters of the Constitution do it. We must come to the point where we reject any unconstitutional federal actions, regardless of whether or not we agree with their effects.
We must also avoid supporting or condemning unconstitutional actions depending on which party is responsible for them. If it is the Constitution that we support then it shouldn’t matter which political party is violating it. For me it is difficult to listen to people who complain when politicians ignore the Constitution on one set of issues, yet are either silent on or actively supportive of unconstitutional activities on another set of issues. We cannot complain about the constitutionality of Obamacare but find nothing objectionable in the Patriot Act. Both pieces of legislation violate the Constitution and both deserve our condemnation.
The ultimate problem coming from this inconsistency is that you can’t be halfway committed to a principle without undermining the principle itself. As Williams states in another column, “…too many Americans have contempt for the principles of liberty and opt for solutions that employ the political arena to forcibly impose their wills on others. If that’s the preferred game, then those Americans shouldn’t whine when others employ the same tactic to impose their wills.” If Americans are really concerned about the size of government and claim that it is on that principle that they oppose certain politicians, they need to have the fortitude to be consistent in the application of that principle.
By being inconsistent, we not only give our implicit consent to all unconstitutional behavior, we destroy our ability to convince our fellow citizens of the virtue of our cause. If we say we respect the Constitution, then we must do so in every case. Failure in this will undo all of the well-reasoned arguments in the world. Nobody is going to find a principle compelling whose adherents are unable to consistently abide by it.