by Rob Natelson

The Original Constitution

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In Washington, D.C. a group presents the Secretary of Education with a 120,000-signature petition asking the federal government to fund an effort to require every public school student in the country to take courses the group favors.

In Montana, activists flood the newspapers with letters urging that Congress force all Americans into a single government-run health care system.

In California, state officials lobby the U.S. Treasury to force the rest of us to guarantee short-term California debt so the state can balance its budget without correcting decades of overspending.

None of these demands would make sense even in the best of times.  Public education is most effective when funding and other decisions are local.  Giving more power to the same government that created the health care mess will raise costs further, and costs will drop only when government largely withdraws from the health care marketplace.  Handing a state “free money” will not induce that state to get its fiscal house in order.

But these are not the best of times.  Taxpayers are already struggling with a serious recession.  The federal budget is trillions in deficit.  When you see people promoting such ideas now, you have to wonder at the depths of human stupidity and greed.

As a professor of constitutional law, I also wonder at the depths of human ignorance.  Do these people know anything about how our Constitution is supposed to work?  Did they ever learn about federalism and the Constitution’s limits on government power?  Do they know what freedom is?

Many of the people who now want to give the federal government life-and-death health-care power over 300 million Americans were hugely upset at how that same government treated a handful of foreign combatants at Guantanamo.  Do they ever make the connection?

Welcome to twenty-first century America – where federal politics is largely centered on a single question: How much can the stupid and greedy plunder from their hardworking, productive neighbors?

History does not repeat itself, but history often sings variations on the same tune.  Consider one historical variation: The American Revolution.

Some history books say that the Revolution occurred when the “Americans” rebelled against the “British” because the “British” insisted on plundering the “Americans.”  But that’s not exactly what happened.

Before the Declaration of Independence, Americans and British were subjects of the same Crown.  They were all fellow-citizens.

King George III and the politicians in control of the British ministry wanted to increase the number of people getting benefits from government.  Their idea was to create new classes of dependents that would be properly grateful to them.

But because the British government was deeply in debt, there wasn’t much money available.  So the politicians hit upon the idea of taxing American businesses and consumers to raise the revenue they needed to swell the government payroll.

The resulting struggle was not purely between America and Britain.  Some Americans were on the royal payroll, or hoped to be, or were dependent on others who were.  These “Tories” firmly supported the London politicians, and some of them fought and killed their fellow Americans.

But among the British people there were many who sympathized with the colonists.  Merchants trading with America knew they would bear much of the new tax burden, so they sympathized with the revolutionists.

Many perceptive Englishmen understood that a government that could freely loot productive people to support political dependents was a real threat to freedom.  Together, pro-American Brits employed political pressure to help our side win.

In other words, the “American Revolution” was largely a civil war – a war among fellow-citizens.  That is why most of the American Founders declared Independence with such regret.  The Declaration of Independence speaks sorrowfully of “our British brethren.”

Some leading Founders, such as John Dickinson and Robert Morris, actually opposed Independence because it broke their hearts to go to war against fellow citizens (although after the decision was made, both Dickinson and Morris rendered great service to the American cause).

Those of us who are outraged at how the federal government treats hardworking, productive people are right to be outraged.  We are right to want to rein in the politicians and bureaucrats.

But politicians and bureaucrats are not the whole problem.  To a considerable degree, they are responding to the demands of the folks who insist that our debt-laden government spend billions more, or that the federal government assume command of our health care and our local schools.

People who make such demands may mean well.  King George and at least some of his ministers meant well, too – but the effect of their policies was a war against millions of their most productive fellow-citizens, and eventually, the loss of those citizens from the British Empire.

Whatever the motivations of those who seek to use the federal government against the rest of us, they too have launched an unbridled and unprincipled political war against their fellow citizens.

From the perspective of history, in other words:  They are the new King George.

In private life, Rob Natelson is a long-time conservative/free market activist, but professionally he is a constitutional scholar whose meticulous studies of the Constitution’s original meaning have been published or cited by many top law journals. (See Most recently, he co-authored The Origins of the Necessary and Proper Clause (Cambridge University Press) and The Original Constitution (Tenth Amendment Center). After a quarter of a century as Professor of Law at the University of Montana, he recently retired to work full time at Colorado’s Independence Institute.

Rob Natelson

The 10th Amendment

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”



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