“The government must follow the Constitution.”
“The Constitution is the most important document.”
Do you ever say either of these two sentences to people? I was at a political convention this past weekend and everyone there held the Constitution up and said that government should follow the Constitution. But, I couldn’t help but wonder: does everyone saying this know why the government should follow the Constitution? Because if we’re asked why it matters if the government follows the Constitution and we can’t give a clear and succinct answer that anyone could digest and understand, we are not only doing the Constitution a disservice but also ourselves and those we interact with.
So, before I go any further (if you’ve read my blog, you probably know this answer by now), stop and try to write or speak out loud the answer to this question.
“It is important for government to follow the Constitution because…”
Don’t read further until you’ve tried to succinctly articulate the second half of that sentence.
Does your answer make sense? Is it something that anyone you talk to could get on board with?
The answer you give is critical because the answer is the one thing that all Americans share in common, the one thing we should all agree upon. It’s the most unifying message there is.
The answer starts with theory. John Locke says, “Where law ends, tyranny beings” and also “For where-ever the Power that is put in any hands for the Government of the People, and the Preservation of their Properties, is applied to other ends, and made use of to impoverish, harass, or subdue them to the Arbitrary and Irregular Commands of those that have it: There it presently becomes Tyranny, whether those that thus use it are one or many.”
John Locke was perhaps the “founder” of the concept of arbitrary power. He’d experienced its lethal effects while living under the arbitrary power of the English government.
Arbitrary Power Defined
So, you may be thinking, “What is arbitrary power? What are you talking about?”
I don’t blame you. I didn’t really understand what it is, or its significance, until I really dug into theory.
There are two definitions:
- “Depending on will or discretion; not governed by any fixed rules; as, an arbitrary decision; an arbitrary punishment.”
- “Despotic; absolute in power; having no external control; as, an arbitrary prince or government.”
OK, both of these definitions are essential to understanding how arbitrary law fits into this puzzle of theory, the Constitution, and the U.S. government that I’ve been building. Pay attention to the language here (this is the 1828 dictionary definition). For something to be arbitrary it must depend exclusively on the will or the discretion of someone; meaning, it is not tied to, or held accountable by any external rules or restrictions. It’s arbitrary. It comes from nothing.
As an example, the English King possessed arbitrary power, meaning that his power was not confined by an external source of law because he was the law. This means that if he one day decided that all women over the age of 50 were no longer a use for society and therefore must be eliminated, they would be eliminated and no one could argue otherwise. His actions are up to his will or discretion. He is not confined by any external law.
An arbitrary government is a government that is unconfined by any external control or law. An arbitrary government is a government that is the final court of review. What the government says, goes, no questions asked.
Which is why it should be no surprise that arbitrary is also synonymous with despotism. Despotism is, of course, equivalent to a dictatorship. And what makes a dictatorship? What is the source of absolute power?
The absence of an external control on government.
Arbitrary Power, Government and the Constitution
I hope you’re following along here. Without a law outside of ourselves, we are left to our own devices. The same goes for government. If government is the law, there is no standard to which its actions are held accountable. This means that every decision the government makes is arbitrary and thereby despotic. Every government’s decision may not bring great harm to the citizenry, but that’s not really the problem. The problem is that since its decisions are arbitrary, there is nothing to stop it from making decisions that cause great harm to the citizenry.
If power is arbitrary, it is absolute. It is complete and it is despotic.
Which leads me to the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land. It is external to our government. It is the external control that is supposed to confine and define the U.S. government’s powers. It is the bastion of liberty because it is law that exists whether or not government exists. This means that the government is just as accountable to the Constitution as you and I are to law. The U.S. government, therefore, does not have arbitrary power.
Because its power is not dependent on the will or discretion of the government. No, its power is derived from the Constitution. The Constitution lays out specific duties that are to be performed by the government and then confines government action to only those duties.
The Constitution’s job is perhaps more important than any other government job. It holds the government accountable to something outside of government.
The Constitution is our government’s job description. We actually have something to appeal to against government.
The Arbitrary Power of the U.S. Government
And this is the reason that it is so dangerous for the U.S. government to pass laws or engage in activities that are not within the confines of the Constitution.
For instance, nowhere in the Constitution is Congress given the power to write law about healthcare. And yet, today, Congress has passed numerous laws about healthcare. Which bodes the question. From where has Congress derived their power to write law on healthcare…if not from the Constitution?
And, that is the question, isn’t it? The answer is chilling.
The answer is…from nowhere.
Because if the U.S. government’s power does not come from the Constitution, it is arbitrary. Why? Because it is purely based on the will and discretion of the government rather than the external control of the Constitution. And that means that if Congress can write and get away with one arbitrary (unconstitutional) law, it can get away with any arbitrary law because now its power comes from nowhere. And if it comes from nowhere, it is confined by nothing.
Everyone should be able to get on board with this. No one (aside from government) wants an unconfined and arbitrary government ruling them, and yet this is what countries throughout history have always been subject to.
This (arbitrary power) is why it is of the upmost importance for the government to follow the Constitution. As soon as the government acts outside of the Constitution, it has stepped into the dangerous waters of despotism. Not every arbitrary law passed is going to be harmful, but, without an external law to confine the power, who is to say the government cannot pass laws that turn out harmful? Without an external standard to compare the power to, there is no limit to the power.
Ah yes, at this point, the legislative, the executive and the judicial have all engaged in unconstitutional conduct—-on so many levels. It truly is a curious reason why the U.S. hasn’t devolved into complete tyranny.
Perhaps that could be due to the fact that enough citizens still honor and respect the Constitution—and know enough about it—that the government is reticent of overstepping too obviously. They do want to keep their jobs. But, where they can get away with something unconstitutional, concerning issues about which the citizens are uneducated and unwitting, the government’s power swells.
And THIS is why we must know what the Constitution says and fight to keep our government accountable to it. Otherwise, we’re doomed to a despotism commanding an unseemly amount of arbitrary power.
The Liberty Belle