Outline of a Platform for Constitutional Government

Larry P. Arnn
President, Hillsdale College

Larry P. ArnnLarry P. Arnn is the twelfth president of Hillsdale College. He received his B.A. from Arkansas State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in government from the Claremont Graduate School. From 1977 to 1980, he also studied at the London School of Economics and at Worcester College, Oxford University, where he served as director of research for Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill. From 1985 until his appointment as president of Hillsdale College in 2000, he was president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He is the author of Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American EducationThe Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution; and Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government.

The following is largely adapted from remarks delivered on September 17, 2010, at the dedication of Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C.

In the previous greatest crisis of the Constitution, when our College was very young, we also served in its defense. In the summer of 1854, with the extension of slavery not just a threat but a reality, the people of Michigan were invited to join together “to protect our liberty from being overthrown and downtrodden.” The result of that meeting was the birth of the Republican Party on July 6 of that year, in Jackson, Michigan, just over 30 miles from the Hillsdale campus. Several College faculty and administration members were leaders of this movement. One of them, Austin Blair, later governor of Michigan, was chosen to be on the committee on resolutions. The first president of Hillsdale College, later lieutenant governor of Michigan, also played a leading role. Among the resolves of that Michigan gathering was the following:

That slavery is a violation of the rights of man as man; that the law of nature, which is the law of liberty, gives to no man rights superior to those of another; that God and nature have secured to each individual the inalienable right of equality, any violation of which must be the result of superior force . . . .

Remembering this history, we have set our minds, in beginning our work at the Kirby Center, to thinking about what a platform for constitutional government today might look like. As was the case in 1854, the specifics of what to do amidst changing circumstances, and in light of the need to enlist the agreement of the American majority, are complex and difficult and require statesmanship. Solving our deepest problems will take years, and will require imaginative policies not yet contrived. But the general principles and goals seem to us clear. They were laid out for us by our fathers. We have set our hands to begin writing them down in the document that follows.

Outline of a Platform for Constitutional Government

On June 17, 1858, Abraham Lincoln said in his House Divided Speech, “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.” His analysis was founded upon a profound contemplation of the Declaration of Independence and its embodiment in the Constitution of the United States. It issued in a set of proposals designed first to limit and then to extinguish slavery by strictly constitutional means.

We require a similar kind of analysis today. Our most difficult policy issues are embedded in a vast administrative state that is built without regard for the principles of the Declaration in their true meaning, or for the proper constitutional operation of government.

The Declaration of Independence articulates the place of man in nature: below God and above the beasts. It says that we may be governed only by our consent. Woodrow Wilson and the founders of modern liberalism called these doctrines “obsolete.” They argued that we live now in the age of progress, and that government must be an engine of that progress. This idea changes how we view not only the purpose of government, but also the rights of its citizens.

Franklin Roosevelt added economic security to the natural rights, as the Declaration of Independence states, of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Government grew as a result, especially under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. And it continues to grow—all in the name of progress. Indeed, the current administration is the most aggressive proponent of the doctrines of Progressivism since they were first introduced.

Under the influence of these new doctrines, the government has grown to be, in simple quantitative terms, the largest single force by far in the land. It now consumes nearly half of all we produce, and it is soon to accumulate a public debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product equal to the largest in our history, matching our debt level at the end of the Second World War. This debt leaves us vulnerable to every mischance that may come upon the nation from abroad or at home. The burden of it stifles enterprise and closes opportunity for all but the well connected.

As the government has grown, it has become a powerful interest in the everyday affairs of the nation. Increasingly, bureaucracy is a factor in every operation our citizens undertake. In the management of our businesses, in the accomplishment of our jobs, in the rearing of our children, and in the very caring for our own bodies, there now are rules too numerous to count. Ominously, these rules now seek even to intrude into the electoral processes by which our free people choose their representatives.

These rules originate in laws passed by Congress that are much too long for anyone to read. After these laws are passed, they are enhanced, expanded, interpreted, and complicated by regulatory agencies. We forget therefore the words of the Father of the Constitution, James Madison:

It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?

All these developments, so long entrenched in our politics, are presented by their proponents as a natural extension of the original principles and the original institutions of the nation. Doubtless those who argue this also believe it, but it cannot possibly be true.

Gone now is the caution about human nature that recognizes that human beings must live under law in order to protect their rights, and that those who make and enforce the law are no more likely to be perfect—or less likely to violate the rights of their fellow citizens—than others. The current tendency toward unlimited government undermines the foundation of constitutional rule in our country. That foundation is stated by Madison in a few words: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Men must be governed because they are imperfect—less than God, less than angels. But then so too are those who make and enforce the law imperfect. They also have interests. Therefore government must have strong powers, but these powers must be limited and checked.

If this is where we are, then it is easy to see “what to do, and how to do it.” We must return to the principles and institutions of the founding of our country. We must revive constitutional rule. To do so, we propose the following four pillars of constitutional government.

1. Protecting the equal and inalienable rights of individuals is government’s primary responsibility.

a. By rights, America’s founders meant those things naturally belonging to us, and those things earned by our own labor. The protection of rights understood in this way breeds harmony in the society, because each of us claims for himself what he can also give to all others. We may all speak, worship, assemble, and keep our justly earned property without taking from another.

b. Each branch of government is subservient to the Constitution.

c. The federal government has the constitutional duty to ensure that each state maintains a republican form of government. This obligation is strengthened and clarified in the 14th Amendment. It must ensure that no state infringes on the rights or the “privileges or immunities” of citizens. Yet it must also recognize the constitutional standing of state governments.

d. The duties of Congress are clearly delineated in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. It should do no more, lest liberty be endangered. It should do no less, else anarchy ensue.

2. Economic liberty is inversely proportional to governmental intrusion in the lives of citizens.

The platform upon which Abraham Lincoln was elected president stated “that the people justly view with alarm the reckless extravagance which pervades every department of the Federal Government.” It urged “a return to rigid economy and accountability” that “is indispensable to arrest the systematic plunder of the public treasury by favorite partisans. . . .” Likewise today:

a. American economic recovery requires that we liberate the American people to work, to save and to invest, secure in their property, confident about the dollar as a store of value, and sure that the government will be an impartial enforcer of the law and of contracts.

b. In all administration of federal programs we must demand the utmost economy, and that every care be taken to avoid further growth and sprawl in the federal administrative establishment.

c. Our massive public investment in entitlement programs must be protected through privatization programs, which should utilize the real practices of insurance against catastrophe and of savings for future needs. In this process our investment must be safeguarded from loss, as the government must keep its contracts.

d. Sound money is among the most sacred of the federal government’s responsibilities, and price stability should be the aim of monetary policy.

e. The federal government must not subsidize corporations or individuals in its tax code or any other policy.

f. Philanthropy is the natural outgrowth of American principles and institutions. It should be encouraged and relied upon, along with local and state government, as the great engine of social reform and the amelioration of distress.

3. To accomplish its primary duty of protecting individual liberty, the federal government must uphold national security.

a. National defense has been for most of American history the chief undertaking of the government under the Constitution. It has been supplanted by the federal entitlement and regulatory state. This reversal of priority hampers growth at home, deprives the American people of scope for self-government, and undermines the defense of the nation.

b. We should pursue relentlessly every form of defense against foreign threats. Especially is this true in the case of attack by weapons of mass destruction. Therefore missile defense and a vigorous policy to combat Islamic and other forms of terrorism are urgently required.

c. We must overcome all international and domestic efforts to undermine American sovereignty, including those mounted through the United Nations and other international organizations, or through efforts to impose new treaties.

d. Promotion of democracy and defense of innocents abroad should be undertaken only in keeping with the national interest.

4. The restoration of a high standard of public and private morality is essential to the revival of constitutionalism. As the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 states, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” The Constitution itself says nothing about education, for the same reason it says nothing about families or marriage or child-rearing: the federal government should not control or regulate these things. Parents and teachers, not the federal government, teach children. What they teach them matters most, for without proper moral and civic education a republican form of government will falter. With it, and with a strong defense of our right to religious liberty, republican government can flourish.

We close again with the words of Lincoln, from the same speech with which we began. Quoting the Bible, Lincoln said that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” We shall be governed either by ourselves, under a Constitution, or else we shall be governed by the new kind of master invented in our day, the bureaucrat, and by the impenetrable web of rules that he fabricates and enforces.

Let us stand together against the rule of bureaucracy, and for liberty and the Constitution.