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. 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.” 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.
 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.
 Constitution of the United States of America, Article IV, Section 4.