Controlling Government

I've been reading a lot lately about what the constitution does and does not say. So, just for kicks, I went and read the thing (available from the government if you get a similar urge). I looked for two things, mainly. First, I wanted to see in what ways the federal government was justified in taking our money in the first place. Second, I wanted to see in what ways the federal government was justified in spending our money on all the crap currently in our federal budget.

Well, the first thing that occurred to me is that the vast majority of the constitution is concerned with the mechanics of choosing our representatives. Who can vote, who can run, that kind of thing. This is significant, but I'll return to it later.

On the first point, it turns out that the original constitution allows the federal government to make any taxes that are not individual or based on capitation. i.e. no taxes on individuals. It leaves the federal government able to tax literally any transaction if feels like. They can tax sales, or transportation, or mail delivery, or creating a business, etc. A later amendment (the 16th) then gives the federal government the unlimited authority to tax income (business and private) as long as it is based on universal rules and not targeted at individuals. That amendment was, in my opinion, a huge mistake, but there you have it. One article I read said that the 1909 amendment debates considered capping the amount of income taxable at 10%, but that limitation was voted down on the basis that no congress would be crazy enough to raise taxes that high.

So that means that the federal government is perfectly in its rights to raise all the taxes we currently pay to them.

On the second point, I thought I was in the clear for my gripes against continued federal funding of social security, welfare and other poorly run bureaucratic nightmares. I didn't find anything in the constitution that would allow spending outside of the military, sciences, the arts and some other, specific regulatory functions. Unfortunately, I brought this up in a learned gathering. While there, a certain clause was pointed out to me that is very small, but wide in its implications. It's called the general welfare clause and calling it that is pretty much as long as the clause itself. The clause is in the very first article section 8 "The Congress shall have power to ... provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States". Note that the general welfare clause is kind of buried there. That's how I missed it.

The effect of the general welfare clause is that the federal government can spend money on anything it wants to, as long as it can claim it is a benefit. Right now, that is interpreted so wide that literally anything fits under the general clause as long as it isn't targeted at a specific individual or region. That means it has to be based on some governing principle and not on individual instances (for example, disaster relief as a policy as opposed to disaster relieve for Florida residents only). Personally, I'd like to raise the bar (so that general welfare includes at least 50% of the population), but frankly, anything goes under the original wording and the current interpretation is certainly justifiable.

So what good is the constitution anyway, if it gives so much power to the federal government? Well, remember what I said earlier about the bulk of the constitution being taken up by procedural rules? I think that is the real genius of the constitution. Those procedures do two things that are extremely important. The first is that the constitution splits up the power of government in the three branches. This is important because it ensures a great deal of gridlock. I like government gridlock. Every time some media outlet or activist group gripes at gridlock, I am thankful for the foresight of our founders in creating a naturally gridlocked system. Budget battles? Do-nothing congress? Good. Please give me more of the same.

The second thing that occurs to me about the genius of the constitution is that it is designed to make sure we have a better government than we deserve. The federal government has a lot of discretion in interpreting the constitution. They have to have that kind of discretion in order to provide for important things (and some things do need to be handled at the federal level, I just think that it's a lot fewer things than most people think it is). The only check on rampant reinterpretation and grabs for power is that we get to elect representatives. The aggregation of these representatives, coupled with the natural gridlock at that level, conspires to give us a deliberative body that will on the whole tend to be unable to control and limit good people, yet gives them incentives to control and limit evil or corrupting people.

The only thing I can see that would improve the representative system is to take steps to make representation tighter. Right now, we are represented by people we just don't know and have no way of knowing. We are forced to elect people based on their public presentations and the depictions of an increasingly partisan press. I would very much like to explore systems that would make representation a little more like it was originally when it was far more likely to either know a candidate directly or at least know of them through personal channels. With our current population, this would substantially increase the size of congress unless we did something radical like introducing further layers of representation (representatives electing representatives electing representatives etc.).

Anyway, my point has become this: you can stop looking to the constitution to save you. It won't. It has no power to. If you really want to improve our government, you are going to have to first improve the people. It just doesn't work to go the other direction. I really do believe that we have a better government than we deserve. We are very fortunate to live in the United States of America. There is no better country on the planet at this time. I'm very glad I live here. Don't let my griping fool you. I've lived in another (first world) country and there just is no comparison. But we stand in very real danger today and we will feel the consequences of our choices for generations as we work so hard to destroy the moral foundations of our people.

5. October 2000 13:13 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink


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