I have been meaning to write up some of my thoughts from the Revolution March and Rally and more generally on my evolving impression of the phenomenon that is the “Ron Paul Revolution,” with which I have been involved to some small extent and fascinated to a larger extent.Â I don’t have the time or clarity for that just this moment.Â But one of the things on my mind, spurred in part by Tom Woods’s speech at the Rally and his new book, “Who Killed the Constitution?”, is the tension that sometimes exists between “doing the right thing” and following the law as it was meant to be interpreted.
Reflecting on the constitutional transgressions of the executive and the judicial and the legislative branches, of the Democrats and the Republicans and the Whigs, I wonder what is the right action to take when the aims of justice are counter to those of moral rectitude.Â Contrary to public opinion, the United States of America is not a democracy; we are a democratic federal republic, a constitutional republic, the operative word being “republic.”Â We ought not to bow to the whims of the masses, as in democracy – which, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, may be defined as “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”Â Rather, we are subject to the rule of law, and the Constitution is the supreme law of the United States.Â Whereas the Declaration of Independence breathed life into the union, the Constitution (and Bill of Rights) provided its skeleton and its life-blood.
What recourse do we have, then, when the Constitution prevents legislators, the judiciary, and the executive from doing what they, or the masses, deem “the right thing?”Â Does the end, some morally sound outcome, justify the means even when the means involves sidestepping constitutional restraints?
We have a number of philosophical frameworks available to us to evaluate this issue – various theories of rights, justice, and morality – and I flit from one to the next with regularity.Â If nothing else, I hope it enables me to see the many sides and nuances of the argument.Â For instance, I might think that ending slavery was a moral necessity, that Brown v. Board of Ed. was a net win, that putting an end to the Nazi regime and liberating the concentration camps was the right thing to do.
But I’m also uncomfortable with the federal government’s repeated stepping on the Constitution, its disregard for states’ rights, and increasingly activist roles in excessively powerful executive and judicial branches. There are numerous examples,Â many of which are in Woods’s book: Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts, Lincoln’s war against the secessionists, Wilson’s Espionage and Sedition Acts, Truman’s grab of the steel industry, the SCOTUS interpretation of the Equal Protection clause in favor of Brown v. Board, the examples go on and on.
When the framework for our very government is the Constitution, that which the government it was meant to restrain so openly flouts, I am taken to believe that we flirt with tyranny the more we side with rectitude over justice.Â (I am playing a bit fast and loose as my time to write draws to a close by referring to the strict Constitutionalist perspective as that of “justice.”)Â I don’t meant to hint here that the government ought not to have ended slavery, or kept the union together, and so forth, but that there were other, perhaps more difficult, ways of achieving these same ends within the bounds of the law as it was written.Â When the government acts as though it is above the law, it establishes a very dangerous precedent.Â The greater the amount of power in the government’s hands, the less liberty in the people’s – isn’t this the tyranny our Constitution was supposed to protect us against?
It is often said that America is a grand social experiment, and I find myself agreeing.Â Is the experiment predicated on America being a nation that strives to do right at all costs?Â Or is it more about the lofty principles enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and codified in our Constitution, and how well our republic stands up to the natural progression towards empire, and towards tyranny?Â I believe very strongly that the American Revolution is not bound in time but that it continues to this very day, and that the Constitution, and adherence thereto, is the very best chance we have to protect us from the base instincts of humanity and sustain a system of government that instead appeals to “the better angels of our nature,” as Honest Abe would have put it.