The more I teach–and let me tell you, I’ve been teaching a lot these last few months–the more I’ve come to realize something significant. Americans grow up with an extremely rare mindset (and yes, this mindset exists in a few other countries as well). It’s a mindset though that, in world history, and even in the world today, few have the luxury of possessing. In America, we have the luxury of not even realizing the uniqueness of what we possess.
And it’s simply this: “no, of course government cannot do whatever it wants, to me or to anyone. Government must abide by the law and some sort of set of rules. Government cannot just say ‘off with my head’ or ‘I can have the property you live on’.” In other words, most Americans—at least from what I’ve experienced and from the mere fact that our society functions the way it does–don’t live in moment by moment fear that any point the government could round us up, throw us in a labor camp or worse, take us to an interrogation/torture chamber, followed by an execution. I’m not wrong in this assumption am I?
This is not say that no Americans fear government abuse. Far from that. But simply that, when I mention to any group of students or audience the idea of arbitrary power, which is merely the ability of government to wield limitless power over them, few if any seem to even understand the very concept of a government possessing that kind of power over them because it’s such a distant and unrelatable reality for them.
Put simply, Americans don’t even relate to the idea that government can or should be able to do whatever the heck it wants.
Here’s a prime example. This is a direct quote from one of my online students explaining what they learned in my class. This student says:
"This semester, I discovered that some of the things I thought were normal and constitutional for our government were unconstitutional. I formerly believed that the president had absolute power and that laws were always made by him. Now I know that our laws are written by congress and when it comes to voting for congress we the citizens should pay more attention" Former Student
This is not the only student I’ve had to say something like this. Many of my students say this or something similar after having taken my class. The part that amuses me the most is that they really have no idea what absolute or arbitrary power is. Or at least, they didn’t until taking the class. They thought that the President was essentially a King, someone who can do anything, and were so blessed with the mindset that government won’t, shouldn’t and cannot abuse power the way many governments have in the past, that they were content assuming the President had absolute power because it never crossed their minds that if he truly did have such power, this could result in him arbitrarily rounding them or their families up and throwing them in a death camp.
The mindset that government, at least in America, could never even come close to doing such a thing [i.e. throw us all in death camps], is so ingrained in our psyche that we can literally believe our government has limitless power and still assume it’s limited.
This expectation of government genuinely blows my mind because this mindset did not just snap into being. Our forefathers didn’t have this mindset of government. No, they feared arbitrary, limitless government because they suffered its abuse. This is what led them to create the kind of government we have today, with a slew of checks and balances and a Constitution that limits government power.
Do y’all register the significance of this?!
The mindset that the US government, even after its creation with all of its limitations and the various checks on its power, just won’t or can’t do certain things because…well, it just “wouldn’t and shouldn’t happen” is truly remarkable. And this mindset, while dangerous in some ways because it breeds apathy, is also a truly precious pearl to protect, treasure and build up.
See, I’ve said it before. The Constitution is as powerful as we make it. The more we believe in it, lift it up and fight for it, the more the government must adhere to it. It’s an idea, and ideas only have power when they’re believed in.
The idea that our government’s power is truly limited, that it can’t just do anything, because, well, that would be wrong–while a less formal or educated understanding of arbitrary power and limited power–is still the seed that keeps the respect and reverence of the Constitution alive and that keeps the current arbitrary government limited enough that its unwilling to take certain blatantly obvious steps towards fully unlimited power.
See, we may not all recognize or understand big concepts like arbitrary power, limited government and the Constitution, but it seems that most Americans at least carry a similar expectation of government–an expectation that is, in fact, rooted in the founding and the reality that our government was created to be limited by the Constitution as its job description. It’s the expectation that government can’t just do anything.
And that expectation alone, even if completely misunderstood or even unrecognized, has power.
It’s my goal and job to turn that unrecognized expectation into an expectation that, once recognized and bolstered with knowledge, stands to change the very course of liberty in this nation.
Read these three written responses from three different students of mine. Each student was from a different American government class I taught at three different schools this past semester. Read these quotes and tell me that education can’t change the course of this nation. Friends, I’m giving understanding to a mindset these students already possess but didn’t know they possessed. I hope these quotes help you recognize that this next generation is hungry for knowledge and that there is…indeed…hope.
"An unconstitutional law that has been passed would be the No Child Left Behind legislation or act. States have been given the power to write laws on education and not the federal government, meaning the government was using arbitrary power. That is dangerous because it means if the federal government can give itself power to write laws they should to 'help', they can write other laws they shouldn't that can potentially be dangerous. Their power becomes unconfined and undefined, meaning they can do whatever in the future". Former Student
"Medicare and Medicaid. The federal government should not force states to something they don't want to do. State law should decide, not the federal government. IF we let the federal government pass an unconstitutional [law], then they will keep on passing laws until we live in a world like 1984. I'm not saying healthcare for all is bad, I'm saying that government overstepped and they will keep overstepping until they are stopped". Former Student
"The main goal of the Constitution is to avoid something called arbitrary power. Arbitrary power is basically unregulated power with no rules to follow. For example, in a monarchy, a king may have arbitrary power, where anything he says goes. If he wants to take your property or kill you, he could do so for whatever reason. A government without a constitution would have arbitrary power. If the government has no laws to follow, then the government is the law, and can, just like the king, do whatever it wants whenever it wants and to whoever it wants. Obviously, the founding fathers understood that arbitrary power is a dangerous route and wanted to avoid it. They knew that an unregulated government would become hijacked by the same flaws that it was to protect the people from, and that arbitrary power would fall into the hands of the wrong people. The founders realized that for a person or group to have arbitrary power over another person or group is just wrong, and the Constitution was their solution. The Constitution helps to avoid arbitrary governmental power by providing boundaries which the government cannot overstep. The government is here to protect our property, and if it oversteps the rules of the Constitution, then the people have the right to take action against this, and to not submit to decisions made outside the guidlies of the Constitution, which would otherwise be arbitrary decisions. We are seeing increasing instances of the government making arbitrary decisions outside the Constitution. This is because the people are allowing it to happen, which could be because the people are becoming less aware of the Constitution and its purpose. For the Constitution to work and prevent arbitrary government, it is imperative that the people realize what the Constitution is for and what it says the government can and cannot do. The less aware we are of what the Constitution says, the the power it has to prevent corruption within the government from squeezing through the cracks and being tolerated by us. I learned some interesting things during this lesson. It was interesting to learn about arbitrary power and what is consequences are. It is crazy to think that there have been situations, such as with monarchies, that arbitrary power was accepted. It is even crazier to realize that arbitrary power is becoming more and more accepted in the U.S. Arbitrary power will never lead to an ideal situation for everyone, but it is as if people want to be ruled instead of having freedom, and if we are not careful that is what will happen if we allow the government to make arbitrary decisions outside the scope of the U.S. Constitution." Former Student
The Liberty Belle