the Onionskin of Government

clip_image001

The function of a national government – its raison d’être – is to establish and defend a geopolitical space over which to govern. It organizes society, publishes laws, manages economic activity, and has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. It manages relations with other nation-states, engages in trade, and manages a method of financing itself. To this end, some sort of enabling legislation is formalized – a document that describes government and defines its relationship to its citizens.

Our Constitution was born of an Articles of Confederation too weak to defend the Union – it contained insufficient power in the executive to rally unenthusiastic states to the nation’s defense (where the uncooperative states couldn’t see their fortunes directly threatened). The Founders needed a stronger executive for national issues, but not strong enough to diminish the sovereignty of the states during tranquil times. Thence, they gave the executive husbandry over foreign affairs, national defense, and other things that could not be handled at the state level – defining the architecture of the legal pyramid, uniformity of property rights and enforcement of contracts, the establishment of a monetary system, etc. In other words, the federal government was to adjudicate those things that could not be resolved at the state level – disputes between states, interstate commerce, universal rights of US citizens, and so forth. All else would be left to the lower levels of government.

The Constitution goes so far as to limit the powers of government to the eighteen listed in the so called “enumerated powers of Congress” in Article I, Section 8, while the Tenth Amendment says “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Further, the powers of federal government were split up between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary, each having checks on the others, so that power was not concentrated in any one branch.

The Constitution defines the rights and responsibilities of government. It’s the rules by which government is allowed to operate. It serves as the supreme law of the land, and as such, supersedes all other laws – no other law, in other words, is allowed to conflict with the Constitution. As the supreme law, it is difficult to change – it takes supermajorities of both Houses of Congress to pass, and a supermajority of the states to ratify. Thus, in 225 years, it has been amended (i.e., changed) only 17 times[1]. Case law – those laws passed by Congress – can be changed by another act of Congress, or by being challenged in court and winding through the appellate system. The ultimate court is the United States Supreme Court, and its word is final. Its chief function is to assure that a challenged law or action is itself constitutional.

The Founders understood that in order to diffuse authority downward toward the individual, the lower forms of government had to reflect the one they were forming. As such, the Constitution states that “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government[2].” The states were to be representative democracies as well.

Like the federal government, the states are to adjudicate those matters unable to be resolved at the next lowest level (municipalities) – regulation of utilities, licensing of professional practitioners, registration and regulation of businesses, maintenance of state roads, and so forth. Local municipalities were the last level of authority, and are to adjudicate down to the individual. The idea was to have an onionskin of authority, each only having power over those things not resolvable by next lowest level of authority, describing a protective “dome” over the people, who were to enjoy maximum individual liberty.

The reasoning is simple. This keeps answer – read: government authority – closest to the actual problem as is practicable, affecting – read: removing a freedom from – as few people as possible. The Founders understood a basic principle of governance: the relationship of government to the governed is a zero-sum game – every new power given to government is a freedom lost to the people. The goal of the Constitution was to minimize this by diffusing government vertically downward as much as possible so as to decrease the number of people affected as much as practicable.

This allows for a “laboratory of the states,” whereby new ideas could be tried out by states, and those with widespread merit could be tried at the federal level. Each state, in turn, was a “laboratory of the cities,” whereby the percolation of meritorious innovation upward is possible within each state. This allows for two very public judgments – people could vote with their feet by moving to another city or state if an idea, in practice, was more repressive than serviceable. Also, the closer an elected official is to the people, the easier to vote a bad one out of office.

The practical problem with self-rule is that it requires an informed and patriotic polity. By that, I mean that the people must be aware of the affairs of state and have the interest of the nation at heart. The trade off is that we are free to pursue our own best interest in the day-to-day affairs of our lives, but when it comes to electing public officials – those who represent us in the larger arenas of governance – we hold the standards of good policy rather then those of self aggrandizement. Benjamin Franklin warned us that when people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the Republic, and we are dangerously close to carrying out that warning. Most of us would never stoop to the levels of deception and manipulation that our representatives routinely practice, but we seem willing to let them do it for us, as long as we get our cut (read: “bringing home the bacon”). We love to publicly disdain the elected officials we privately re-elect, which explains why these smarmy self-servers are allowed to recidivate. We keep asking them to.


[1] I have deducted the first ten Amendments – the Bill of Rights – as they were penned by the authors and put through the amendment process as part of the constitutional genesis itself.

[2] Constitution of the United States of America, Article IV, Section 4.

Understanding America

clip_image001

President Obama was trivially correct when he said that “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism[1].” Yet he missed the intention of the phrase by passing over the fact that American is fundamentally different from every other nation in history. This was best expressed by Englishman GK Chesterton: “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence[2] … ”

The success of the American experiment in self-government is a result of its founding principles, set forth in the Declaration and secured by the Constitution of the United States of America. The universal and permanent truths of human equality and liberty are preserved in America by the rule of law, and are reflected in its institutions and cherished by its people[3]. In Europe, nationality is related to nativity, and thus an immigrant cannot become an Englishman or a Swede. Being an American, however, is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who come to America can indeed become an American[4].

More people flock to America than all the countries in the rest of the Free World combined, and more people flock to the Free World than all the remaining countries of the world. Why do you suppose that is? Only a neoliberal would think it is to succor from a more generous teat. They come here (and places like us) because America is the most upwardly mobile society history has ever seen. They come here to improve their lot by their effort. Don’t believe me? Talk to an immigrant.

The Founders were keenly aware of the universal significance of America’s principles, and of America’s unique responsibility for upholding and advancing these principles. As Thomas Paine reminded us, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind[5].” The Founders believed that the idea of human liberty and, therefore, the inherent right of self-government, were applicable not only to Americans, but to all people everywhere.

The American experiment was important partly because it was an example to oppressed people around the world. After touring the US, Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1835 that the “principal instrument” of American foreign policy is “freedom[6].” He meant that, in the Unite States, diplomacy is not just something the government does. When American citizens proclaim their faith in their principles and live them at home, they are helping to make their nation’s foreign policy, because their words and actions are a lesson for the world.

Throughout our history, American citizens have been inspired by our political, religious, and economic freedoms to act as ambassadors of liberty. As missionaries, merchants, and medics our citizen-diplomats have established schools, orphanages, and hospitals. They have translated literature, educated children, and inspired political reform in countries around the world that were oppressed and impoverished. The “greatest enemy of tyranny,” as Webster said, is this republican spirit of self-government. The civic engagement of individual American citizens and their commitment to America’s founding principles are a vital part of America’s unique role in the world[7].

Yet as one nation in a world of nations, the United States has also had to practice diplomacy towards other governments. The Founders understood that America’s principles must be reflected in its relations with other nations. For them, diplomacy was not merely a means of negotiating America’s interests. It was also a tool for advancing liberty. Liberty has always been the defining principle of America – it is not merely a political preference. The United States thus sent some of its brightest minds and most ardent patriots – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams – abroad as diplomats to represent the American people and the exceptional ideas of the young republic.

America does have a special role in the world – one that is morally and philosophically grounded in the principles of human liberty, and in its sense of justice. This means that the true consistency of American foreign policy is to be found not in its policies, which prudently change and adapt, but in its guiding principles, which are unchanging and permanent.

This idea is part of the roots of neoconservatism – the moral impetus, the desire to let all people shake the chains of government oppression. The practical side is rooted in the fact that democracies do not war against democracies – the abstract concept of “sovereignty” is reinforced by consent of the governed. Neoconservatives are, by their own words, liberals who have been mugged by reality. Their desire to envision a better world has been sidetracked by the failure of neoliberal policies. In search of an alternative position, they have re-discovered America’s origins, and seen the empirical evidence of the ability of democracies to solve differences short of armed conflict. In so doing, they have conflated “promoting” democracy to others with “inflicting” democracy on others. Democracy isn’t the cause of enlightenment, it’s the result.

The notion of “American exceptionalism” became widely applied in the context of efforts to account for the weakness of working-class radicalism in the US. The major question subsumed in the concept became why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party. That riddle has bedeviled socialist theorists since the late 19th century[8].

As social democratic parties the world over shift toward the free market, the differences between the United States and other western democracies are growing increasingly narrow. Does it still make sense to speak of the US as the exceptional nation[9]? Again, this misses the point. These metrics are the results of the exceptionalism, not the cause. We have achieved these results because of market-republicanism, and we practice market-republicanism because individual liberty – associative, political and economic freedoms – is in the American DNA. To the degree that social democracies practice market-republicanism, they will mimic our prosperity, if asymptotically. To the degree that they practice their socialistic side, they will separate from our prosperity, increasingly. Even more fundamentally, unless they adopt American insistence on popular sovereignty – holding public officials accountable to the people – the chasing prosperity by imitating market economics will weaken and fail.


[1] President Barack Obama, press conference, Palaiz de la Musique et Des Congres, Strasbourg [France], April 4 2009, 1632 [Local].

[2] GK Chesterton, What I Saw in America, London, 1922.

[3] Marion Smith, What Is America’s Role in the World?, Heritage Foundation, November 16 2010.

[4] Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double Edged Sword.

[5] Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776.

[6] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol I, Part II, Chapter 10.

[7] Smith, op cit.

[8] Lipset, op cit.

[9] Ibid.

America’s Original Birthday Card

clip_image001

In Congress, July 4 1776

A Declaration

By the Representatives of the United States of America,

in General Congress Assembled

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the Earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. – Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

· He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

· He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

· He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

· He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

· He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

· He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

· He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

· He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

· He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

· He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

· He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

· He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

· He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

  • For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us;
  • For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States;
  • For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world;
  • For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent;
  • For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury;
  • For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences;
  • For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies;
  • For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments;
  • For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

· He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

· He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

· He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

· He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

· He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.