This article was originally published on December 12, 2002. For more Harry Browne archives, visit www.harrybrowne.org
Dec. 15 should be a national holiday.
No, it’s not Earth Day, or Martin Luther King Day, or Flag Day, or Beat-Up-Some-Third-World-Country Day.
It’s Bill of Rights Day.
If there were to be only one holiday in America, that should be it. Contrary to all the blather we hear about the unique goodness of the American people or our religious heritage or anything else, the one thing that set this country apart from all others was the Bill of Rights.
This was the first country in history to have a national government that was truly limited. No, the limits weren’t always observed, but for a century they held the federal government more in check than any government in history. At the end of the 19th century, federal, state and local taxes still took only 8 percent of the national income (it’s 48 percent today).
Children know nothing of their heritage
Unfortunately, our children grow up with no concept of limited government. All they learn in school is that the government is the wondrous savior that brought us out of the Great Depression, made the world safe for democracy, holds human greed in check, and stops rapacious corporations from polluting the environment.
They don’t understand that the one unique factor government possesses is force, and that only a strict Constitution can keep that force from getting out of hand. When they study the Constitution, they pore over tedious sections explaining the makeup of the Senate and the House, how judges are selected, and how federal laws are enacted. Needless to say, they aren’t taught the concept and virtue of limited government.
The meaning of the Constitution
And so they don’t understand that the Bill of Rights is the heart of the Constitution â€“ the section that gives meaning to it by holding the government in check. Those 10 amendments say:
- The government can’t restrict what you say, what you write, what you protest, or what you believe.
- The government has no authority to limit in any way your ability to defend yourself.
- The military can’t force you to allow soldiers to stay in your home.
- No one has the right to search your person or your property without a warrant signed by a judge affirming that there is good reason to believe your belongings are involved in a crime.
- No policeman or prosecutor can force you to say anything, you can’t be tried again for a crime for which you’ve been acquitted, no one can take your property without due process of law, and the government can’t use your property without paying for it.
- You can’t be held in jail without being brought to trial or without knowing the charges against you, you can’t be deprived of an attorney, and you have a right to confront anyone who gives evidence against you.
- You have a right to be tried by a jury of your peers.
- You can’t be subject to excessive bail requirements, be tortured or receive cruel punishment.
- The listing of these rights doesn’t mean you have forfeited any other rights, unless those rights are specifically abrogated within the Constitution.
- Most important of all, the federal government has no authority to do anything that isn’t specifically mentioned in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which spells out the areas in which Congress is allowed to legislate.
The Constitution isn’t written in Chinese, Swahili or Sanskrit. It’s in plain English. And the first question a president should ask any potential Supreme Court judge is, “Can you read?”
If the judges could read and pay attention to what they read:
- We wouldn’t have national medical programs â€“ and health care would be far less expensive, far more efficient, and far more user-friendly.
- The federal government would have no role in education, and our children would at least have a chance to learn something significant in school.
- None of your money would be sent to foreign dictators.
- The president would have no authority to make war without a specific declaration of war by Congress â€“ and thus there would have been no U.S. invasions of Iraq, Panama, Grenada, Serbia or Afghanistan â€“ and tens of millions of foreigners might not hate us so much.
- There would be no need for an income tax, because the cost of the federal government would be â€“ at most â€“ a third of what it is now.
- And many more benefits would flow to us.
Bring back America
The Bill of Rights isn’t some legalistic fine print. It was written to make our lives freer, more prosperous, and happier. By forsaking it, America has become no better than any other country in the world.
No, we won’t have a national celebration this Bill of Rights Day. But we can privately contemplate what we’ve lost â€“ and vow to restore the America that was meant to be.
Harry Browne (RIP 1933-2006), the author of Why Government Doesnâ€™t Work and many other books, was the Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000,Â a co-founder of DownsizeDC, and the Director of Public Policy for the American Liberty Foundation.Â See his website.