In my latest reading of Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of America’s Government, M. Stanton Evans discusses and is critical of liberal justifications for expanding the role of the federal government, even though the Tenth Amendment limits the federal government’s powers to those enumerated in the U.S. Constitution.
These liberal justifications include the following: the argument that small government made sense in the Founders’ time but since then we have learned that small government doesn’t work because it leads to unfettered capitalism and thus the inequality of wealth, plus we live in a more advanced time; a liberal application of Article I, Section 8, which includes the Commerce Clause allowing the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, the stipulation that the legislative branch of the federal government can collect taxes for the general welfare, and the Necessary and Proper Clause permitting the U.S. Congress to enact whatever laws it deems necessary to carry out its enumerated powers; the Fourteenth Amendment, which Evans says has been abused to justify many examples of federal intervention in state and local affairs; and the notion that the U.S. Constitution is a living document.
In terms of Evans’ critique of these liberal justifications, I’ll only mention three points that Evans made:
First, Evans says on page 45 that conservative judges in the early 1900’s deserve some blame for the abuse of the Fourteenth Amendment, for they appealed to that amendment to overturn “industrial regulations enacted by the states.” My guess is that, because the Fourteenth Amendment says that states cannot deprive people of life, liberty, and property, conservative judges maintained that states cannot impose industrial regulations, which (in their minds) undermined liberty and property.
Second, Evans critiques the notion that the U.S. Constitution is a living document by noting that it lays out a formal process for it to be amended, which (according to Evans) would be strange if its Framers believed that the U.S. Constitution was living and breathing and could be “changed from age to age merely by interpretation” (page 47).
Third, Evans says on page 44 that “Most favored by the centralizing interest from the time of Hamilton on has been the phraseology in Article I, Section 8…” This intrigued me because Evans was acknowledging that a liberal interpretation of Article I, Section 8 went back to the early days of the United States, as far back as the time of Hamilton. Would that call into question the argument that some liberals have used that small government worked in the early days of America but has since become outdated, since there were some who did not care for small government even in the early days of the United States?
I started Evans’ chapter entitled “The Power of the President”. In this chapter, Evans argues that, while a number of liberals have criticized President Richard Nixon for making the Presidency more powerful, liberals themselves—-including some of the liberals who were criticizing Nixon—-spoke highly of a strong Presidency when it came to Presidents prior to Nixon. It’s easy for ideologues to be inconsistent, to think that a strong Presidency is all right when it serves their ends, but not when it does not. Even today, there are people who criticize President George W. Bush for circumventing the legislative branch at times, even though President Barack Obama has done the same thing.
But, if the Presidency is given the power to do good, would it also have the power to do evil? I think that this is a significant reason that libertarians support limited government. Personally, I’d hope that the election process would keep leaders in check. The danger there, however, would be that the majority could become a tyranny, which could potentially stomp on the rights of the minority. Should there not be limits on government power, even if the majority wants for the government to have power that exceeds those limits? I wrestle with this question. I do think that a reason that government exists is to enact policies that promote the general welfare as well to stop wrongdoing that harms people. Consequently, I have a hard time saying that it’s an abuse of power for the government (say) to require everyone to have health insurance, and to stop health insurance companies from dropping people who get sick. Are we on a slippery slope when we give the government the right to make those decisions, though? Wouldn’t we be on a slippery slope if we gave the government any power? And yet, libertarians could then argue that this is why the government should respect the Constitution: it legally sets limits on government power by telling the government what it can and cannot do.
I’ll stop here.