Tag: james madison

How Judges Protect Liberty

In my Encyclopedia Britannica column this week, I take a look at “the responsibility of judges to strike down laws, regulations, and executive and legislative actions that exceed the authorized powers of government, violate individual rights, or fail to adhere to the rules of due process.”

Certainly they don’t always live up to those expectations, as Robert A. Levy and William Mellor wrote in The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom

The column might have been more timely last summer, when Judge Andrew Napolitano concluded one of his Freedom Watch programs on the Fox Business Channel by hailing four federal judges who had courageously and correctly struck down state and federal laws:

  • Judge Martin L. C. Feldman, who blocked President Obama’s moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico;
  • Judge Susan Bolton, who blocked Arizona’s restrictive immigration law;
  • Judge Henry Hudson, who refused to dismiss Virginia’s challenge to the health care mandate; and
  • Judge Vaughn Walker, who struck down California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage.

That was a good summer for judicial protection of liberty. But as I note, there have been more examples this year, reminding us of James Madison’s predictions that independent judges would be “an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of power in the legislative or executive.”

Charity and the Federal Government

David Boaz’s post on bizarre and utterly preposterous claims that the federal government’s “social safety net” has been shrinking brought to my mind James Madison’s position that “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.”

“The Father of the Constitution” wasn’t being cold-hearted when he took this position during a 1794 debate in the House of Representatives over federal aid to refugees. Rather, he was merely recognizing that “the government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects.” Charity just wasn’t one of the specified objects. Of course, future politicians decided otherwise.

Today, most young Americans grow up in federally subsidized schools offering federally subsidized meals. They are inculcated to view the federal government as a benevolent caregiver that exists to provide Americans with housing, food, health care, and even income (to name just a few). Madison’s unfortunately quaint notion that the federal government isn’t supposed to be engaged in “charitable” activities would probably leave them dumbfounded.

I single out children because this week a private charity that I am involved with, the Purple Feet Foundation, is giving select inner-city sixth graders an opportunity to take hold of their futures now. Instead of promoting dependency, these kids will spend the week engaged in educational activities that will hopefully inspire them to utilize their individual talents to succeed in life. The Foundation does not seek, nor will it accept, taxpayer money. I believe this sets a good example for these kids.

Those of us who desire the limited federal government that Madison envisioned are often accused of being uncaring about those who are in need. In fact, the opposite is the truth: we recognize that government programs are wasteful, ineffective, and counterproductive to the aims that they are trying to achieve. As a Cato essay on federal welfare explains, private charity is superior to government programs for several reasons:

Private charities are able to individualize their approaches to the circumstances of poor people. By contrast, government programs are usually designed in a one-size-fits-all manner that treats all recipients alike. Most government programs rely on the simple provision of cash or services without any attempt to differentiate between the needs of recipients.

The eligibility requirements for government welfare programs are arbitrary and cannot be changed to fit individual circumstances. Consequently, some people in genuine need do not receive assistance, while benefits often go to people who do not really need them. Surveys of people with low incomes generally indicate a higher level of satisfaction with private charities than with government welfare agencies.

Private charities also have a better record of actually delivering aid to recipients because they do not have as much administrative overhead, inefficiency, and waste as government programs. A lot of the money spent on federal and state social welfare programs never reaches recipients because it is consumed by fraud and bureaucracy…

Another advantage of private charity is that aid is much more likely to be targeted to short-term emergency assistance, not long-term dependency. Private charity provides a safety net, not a way of life. Moreover, private charities may demand that the poor change their behavior in exchange for assistance, such as stopping drug abuse, looking for a job, or avoiding pregnancy. Private charities are more likely than government programs to offer counseling and one-on-one follow-up, rather than simply providing a check.

Celebrating James Madison

Two hundred and sixty years ago, James Madison was born in Virginia. His life was long and eventful, comprising the American Revolution, the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the founding of political parties, the War of 1812, and the rise of Andrew Jackson. The struggles that would culminate in the Civil War were evident in the last years of his life.

Along with his political career, Madison proved to be one of this nation’s most insightful and certainly its most influential political theorist. He is often accorded the twin titles of Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. No doubt those titles claim too much for him or any other mortal. But according him those titles is not far from the truth.

What would surprise Madison about our current constitutional and political arrangements?

He would be surprised and, I think, displeased by the size and scope of the federal government. Madison was a limited government man. He thought the general welfare clause in Article I of the Constitution was simply a shorthand way of mentioning other enumerated powers, not a general grant of power for Congress to pursue whatever it might think served the general welfare. As he wrote, “If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions.” Of course, for some decades now, the courts have permitted Congress broad powers under the general welfare clause.

He would also be taken aback by the all but plenary power accorded to Congress under the Commerce Clause of Article I. How could (can) a limited government be reconciled to such plenary power? Moreover, as he said in Congress, “if industry and labour are left to take their own course, they will generally be directed to those objects which are the most productive, and this in a more certain and direct manner than the wisdom of the most enlightened legislature could point out.”

I think Madison would also be surprised by how far the executive has taken on the prerogatives of an English king, in fact if not in law. Like many republicans of the founding era, he worried that the legislature would dominate the executive. We live in a time where Congress happily delegates its power to the executive branch and awaits the executive’s budget agenda. At the same time, Madison worried that executives, presidents and kings, had every reason to declare and make war, the latter being the most dreaded of “all enemies to public liberty.”  As he wrote in 1795:

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

In this light, it is perhaps inevitable that the authors of The Executive Unbound dismiss Madison in favor of Carl Schmitt, the author of The Concept of the Political and from 1933 onward, Preußischer Staatsrat and President of the Vereinigung nationalsozialistischer Juristen.

For Madison, the whole point was to bind government through a Constitution, enumerated powers, and ambition pitted against ambition. His was a noble vision of politics in service to individual liberty. Let us hope that we are not living “after the Madisonian Republic.”

Health Care Ruling a Victory for Federalism and Individual Liberty

Today’s ruling vindicates the constitutional first principle that ours is a government of delegated, enumerated, and thus limited powers. Like Judge Hudson in the Virginia case, Judge Vinson recognized that the individual mandate represents an unprecedented and improper incursion beyond those powers: the federal government, under the guise of regulating commerce, cannot require that people engage in economic activity.

And this is as it should be: if the only limit on congressional power were Congress’ own assessment of the wisdom of each assertion of such power, the Constitution would be obsolete – as would any conception of checks and balances. James Madison, the author of the Federalist Paper (51) explaining how man’s non-angelic nature requires explicit limits on those who govern, would spin in his grave. As even would Alexander Hamilton – perhaps the Framer most favorably disposed to strong central power – who cautioned that courts should not be in the business of evaluating the “more or less necessity” of a piece of legislation but rather define judicially administrable rules to guide (but also limit) Congress’s actions.

And so today’s ruling, in a lawsuit that now has 26 states as plaintiffs – with two others challenging the health care “reform” separately – represents the latest and most significant victory for federalism and individual liberty. This will not end until the Supreme Court has its say, but the tide is clearly running in freedom’s favor.

I will comment further once I’ve had a chance to read through the ruling.

Justice Scalia Speaks to the Congressional Tea Party Caucus

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Is there anything inappropriate about Justice Scalia’s speaking about the Constitution before Rep. Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus, as the New York Times editorial board suggests? Is it time to drop the fiction of a judicial monastery with justices detached from the political process?

My response:

There is nothing inappropriate about Justice Scalia’s speaking today before the congressional Tea Party Caucus – or any other group, for that matter, that is well within the mainstream of American politics. As POLITICO reports, Rep. Bachmann’s event is open to all members of Congress, and several Democrats have said they’ll attend.

The complaint by the editorial board of The New York Times –  that “the Tea Party epitomizes the kind of organization no justice should speak to” –reflects nothing more than that corner’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Tea Party, notwithstanding last November’s elections. When the board goes on to condemn the Tea Party’s “well-known and extreme point of view about the Constitution,” it might better direct its wrath at James Madison. After all, as the principal author of the Constitution, he’s the Framer who promised in Federalist 45 that the powers of the new government would be “few and defined” – the “extreme” view the Times editorialists regularly condemn.

In deciding cases, judges and justices need to be detached from politics, of course: They belong to the “non-political branch.” But that hardly precludes them from talking about the Constitution in political contexts. If anything, it is the Congress that needs to be more attentive to the Constitution its members take an oath to uphold. That, in fact, is the root of our problem today. And we have the Tea Party to thank for noticing it.

Toward Restoring Constitutional Government

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

In light of today’s reading of the Constitution in the new House, what misinterpretations of the Constitution do you regularly see in American politics? And are House Republicans implying that the previous Democratic majority did not have a firm grasp of the government’s founding document?

My response:

Thanks to the Tea Party, as I wrote in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Congress seems to be rediscovering the Constitution – or at least many House Republicans seem to be. When members read the document aloud today, apparently for the first time in the nation’s history, they’ll be throwing down a marker: “We take the Constitution seriously, and intend to abide by its principles.” If true, how refreshing.

This is not a partisan matter. As many Republicans have said – albeit, some only after November’s elections – both parties for years have ignored the Constitution’s limits on political power. To confirm that, we need look no further than to James Madison, the principal author of the document, who assured skeptical ratifiers in Federalist 45 that the powers authorized by the Constitution were “few and defined.” That hardly describes today’s federal behemoth.

Thus, the main “misinterpretation” has been over the very idea of constitutional limits – particularly as inherent in the doctrine of enumerated powers, the principle that “We the People” gave Congress only 18 enumerated powers. The Commerce Clause, for example, was written mainly to ensure interstate commerce unfettered by state interference, not to enable Congress to regulate every aspect of life. And the General Welfare Clause was meant to limit Congress’s taxing power pursuant to its enumerated ends to objects of national, not particular, concern: it wasn’t meant to enable Congress to redistribute private wealth at will.

The great change came during the New Deal, of course, after FDR’s infamous Court packing threat, when a cowed Court began turning the Constitution on its head. But don’t take my word for that constitutional legerdemain. Here’s Roosevelt, writing to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1935: “I hope your committee will not permit doubts as to constitutionality, however reasonable, to block the suggested legislation.” And here’s Rexford Tugwell, one of the principal architects of the New Deal, reflecting on his handiwork some 30 years later: “To the extent that these new social virtues [i.e., New Deal policies] developed, they were tortured interpretations of a document [i.e., the Constitution] intended to prevent them.” They knew exactly what they were doing.

So when today’s liberals tell us the Constitution authorizes the vast federal programs that now reduce so many Americans to government dependents, they reveal their historical ignorance – or their political ambition. And they’re reduced to the silliness we saw in Tuesday’s New York Times, where the Times editorialists ranted against today’s constitutional reading as “a theatrical production of unusual pomposity.” Illustrating their own penchant for pomposity, they then dug into their bag of adjectives and let loose: “a self-important flourish,” “their Beltway insider ritual of self-glorification,” “a presumptuous and self-righteous act,” “an air of vacuous fundamentalism,” ”all of this simply eyewash,” “a ghastly waste of time.” They must have been emotionally drained when they finished their screed.

The Constitution is not a blank slate, details to follow, as decided by transient majorities. Were it that, it never would have been ratified. After all, we fought a revolution to rid ourselves of overweening government, and fought a Civil War to institute at last the grand principles of the Declaration of Independence. Nor will those principles be restored in a day. But today’s reading will start a debate that is sorely needed, at the end of which one can hope for restoration.