Over the weekend, I had an interesting Facebook discussion with a friend on the need for constitutional restraint on federal power.

He doesn’t see the point.

An article I wrote pointing out that James Madison vetoed a public works bill he actually favored, because he understood the federal government lacked the authority to implement the program sparked the debate.

“You’d still have us traveling on two lane local roads. Cut off and behind economically and culturally from the rest of the world and not ever having visited the moon. Glad I don’t live in that country.”

Actually, the point was that IF we agree the federal government should take action in a certain area, we should first amend the constitution to delegate the power. Not simply allow the feds to do whatever they want to do.

My friend disagreed.

He argued that the federal government should go ahead and do “good things,” even lacking constitutional authority. He accused me of living in the past and idolizing the founders when I insisted that we should remain true to our constitutional roots.

“The idiocy of thinking that a modern society can be built and maintained and hold to a strict interpretation, INTERPRETATION, of our constitution is ridiculous. All of us have benefitted in one way or another at one time or another by federal government programs. Private ownership of infrastructure would be a nightmare. If you don’t understand that then you are delusional,” he wrote. “Our forefathers could never have envisioned the complexity of a modern society in the 21st century. The constitution has always been open to interpretation. Stop being a whiney baby just because you don’t like the way it has been interpreted. I’ll take a nanny state if I don’t have to see scenes of people starving on the streets because we are too heartless to share some of our good fortune living in a free society, that the collective resources have built, defended and maintains.”

Unfortunately, many Americans hold a similar viewpoint. They see things that need doing, and think the federal government should just step up and get the job done. They see no problem with constitutional violations, as long as they are for the “common good.”

But they fail to grasp that allowing the government to exercise power for “good” also empowers the government to perpetrate evil. How can you insist that the federal government must respect the right to free speech, or the right to worship freely or the right to due process when you’ve already set the precedent that constitutional restraint doesn’t really matter?

People like my friend make the mistake of thinking that government will always work for their benefit, even though thousands of years of human history proves them wrong. Or they assume that Americans will never allow their government to get that out of control, apparently forgetting that Hitler came to power and killed millions of Jews with the approval of the German people, as Ian Kershaw, writing for Der Spiegel, points out.

Much suggests, in fact, that between the death of Hindenburg in August 1934 and the expansion into Austria and the Sudetenland four years later Hitler was indeed successful in gaining the backing of the vast majority of the German people, something of immeasurable importance for the disastrous course of German policy ahead.

Nobody denies that governments can accomplish “good things.” The German people were quick to praise Hitler for all he accomplished, even after the war, as Kershaw points out.

Restoration of order, rebuilding the economy, removal of the scourge of unemployment, demolition of the restrictions of the hated Versailles Treaty, and the establishment of national unity all had wide popular resonance, ranging far beyond die-hard Nazis, appealing in fact in different ways to practically every sector of society. Opinion surveys long after the end of the Second World War show that many people, even then, continued to associate these “achievements” positively with Hitler.

But from Hitler’s Germany to Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the large centralized state stands as the greatest killing machine in human history, not to mention the oppression and human misery it’s caused. For that reason, we must insist that government remain controlled and restrained, as Thomas Jefferson implored.

The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.

My friend accused me of engaging in “time travel” and mocked me for holding onto archaic ideas from the past. He’s willing to trade a little government control for “clean streets” “clean water” and a “high standard of living.” As if those things would not exist without the federal government doing them! But even if you buy the idea that America’s prosperity floated down the waters of the Potomac, you simply can’t look back through history and fail to recognize the danger that uncontrolled centralized power poses. Perhaps my friend would do well to do a little time travel of his own and visit the Ukraine during Stalin’s reign, or check in on the Armenians during Turkish rule over the Ottoman Empire, or hang out for a bit in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Maybe visit an American Indian reservation. Or just take a trip to Auschwitz. I think his starry-eyed view of government might just fade a bit.

Mike Maharrey

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