Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What Does YOUR Copy Say?

Today I want to point out a fundamental error in the conservative view of the government's role: their willingness to ignore the Constitution. As I've pointed out here before, the Constitution stands as a sacred document for Republicans - except when it doesn't, which is more or less whenever it's most convenient. Whether it's true or not, however, they have made themselves the party of the Constitution, which they consider the ultimate incarnation of the Founding Fathers' Will. The Founding Fathers' Will Be Done is so axiomatic a part of the Republican worldview that they take umbrage at the mere notion that some dead guys might not have the deciding vote. (Let's ignore the fact that the Founding Fathers ranged from staunchly deistic to aggressively anti-religious, and would have considered modern Christian Fundamentalism a plague. Hey - it turns out they are as smart as the Republicans claim!)

In this particular case, the Republicans tend to criticize Democrats for their hands-on view of the government; the government's role, they say, is not to step in and help people out whenever it can. The government's role is to get out of everyone's way, and see to it that people make their own prosperity. They often cite these immortal words as a statement of what America should do:

"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."

America exists in order to defend these rights, they say. Wonderful.

There are two problems with falling back on the Declaration of Independence, however. The first is that, sadly, it's not a legal document. It's actually more or less a declaration of war - it states the reasons we mustn't hang out with George anymore, and proposes neither to define nor to institute a government.

Now that you mention it, however, it turns out there's more to the Declaration of Independence than that immortal sentence. It turns out that that's just the beginning of a rather substantial list of self-evident truths! Let's continue:

"— 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."

Governments are instituted among men to secure these rights. The People must institute new government in such form, as shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

It seems that the Founding Fathers - particularly Thomas Jefferson, sometimes erroneously revered as the father of the Republican Party - had fairly concrete ideas about the role of government. So concrete, in fact, that they eventually drafted a real legal document to make sure we understood them:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

We establish this Constitution for the United States of America in order to do these things.

Like it or not, Republicans, your all-hallowed Fathers have weighed in on this particular issue. We can't ask if domestic tranquility is the government's responsibility; we can only ask how best the government can achieve it. We can't ask whether the general welfare is our goal; we can only ask how best to get there. We can't ask whether government exists to make the nation more perfect; we can only ask how best to reach for perfection.

The government has a job, and that job is not to do as little as possible.

Small government can be understood as a means to an end, but it cannot be the end itself. The Constitution has told you what the end must be - and if you revere the Constitution, you have a responsibility to go there.

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