One of the first questions I always challenge anyone–in America–with is, “Why do we care if government follows the Constitution?”
This question is critical for us to answer because if we don’t have a reason to care whether or not the government follows the Constitution, we’re certainly not going to have a reason to care about what the Constitution actually says.
So, any conversation surrounding the “Constitutionality” of government’s behavior is pointless if it’s not grounded in a solid understanding of why government’s behavior should be Constitutional.
Review: Why We Should Care
A brief review: the Constitution, a written Constitution in America, is the supreme law of the land. It’s superior to government. It’s a standard by which to compare government behavior. The federal Constitution is our federal government’s job description. It lays out for government exactly what it can and therefore cannot do. It confines government power by clearly defining government power.
This-limiting government power-is extraordinary in world history because most governments have always had unlimited, arbitrary power. Arbitrary power is power that comes from nowhere. If it comes from nowhere it is limitless, undefined and unconfined. Hence, if a King says, “off with your head”, well friends, “it’s off with your head”. There’s no Constitution, there’s no law above government, to appeal to or to protect you from government.
In America, the power our federal government possesses comes from the Constitution. Hence, its power is not arbitrary. So, if the government does something outside of the confines of the Constitution, from where does it get the power to do what it just did?
And if it gets the power to do something from nowhere, it’s arbitrary power, which means government can very literally do anything.
This is why we have a written Constitution in America. The founders didn’t want a government that could do whatever it wanted to us–a government that was the last and final source of all authority.
No, in this country, the final source of authority lies in the Constitution.
Which leads me to the simple, yet critical question with which I started this article. Why should we care? Because we all have a stake in keeping our government confined to its job description so that it can’t do whatever it wants to us. No one, aside from government, wants a government that can arbitrarily say, “Off with your head”, or anything for matter.
In America, we are, very literally, government’s employers. We gave them, our employees, a job description-The Constitution-to do a job for us.
So, we ought to care immensely whether or not our employees both know and follow their job description–the one thing confining their power.
Why Government Should Care
So, we now know why we should care if government follows the Constitution. But, why should government care?
Why should people in government care what their job description says? Why should they want to follow it? They’re government officials. They want, they crave power. The Constitution is an annoying roadblock for them. It gets in the way of them possessing unlimited power.
Quite simply. Why should they care? Their only real incentive to care is if they know we care. Truly. Why would an employee care to know or follow their job description if they know their employers don’t even know their job description? What employee would wall themselves into rules and regulations they know will never be enforced?
Friends, it’s really that simple. We have the luxury of living in a nation where our lawmakers are elected by us. So, we get to punish them if they don’t know or follow the Constitution.
But, see, that’s the thing. Very few of us know the Constitution, much less, why it matters and the consequence of our apathy and lack of knowledge is that our politicians have no incentive to know or follow the Constitution.
Do They Care?
I’m saying all this for reason, because I recently got to actually ask some of our representatives if they care. The state governments also have Constitutions defining and confining their powers. I recently sat down with some state representatives in my state of North Carolina. One was a member of the state house, the other a state senator.
I wanted to discuss with them a recent bill they’d voted on and passed. I asked the House member if he had constituents reaching out to him much, wanting to know what he was doing, bringing to him their concerns and he said, “Not really”. He said, on occasion, in response to a bigger issue bill, citizens may start making complaints or calling and writing but for the most part, there’s little citizen engagement. Again, the issues are what move people and likely few of the constituents know the Constitutional role of the state government regarding these issues.
His response was alarming, though not surprising, for me to hear and it confirmed what I already suspected. Why should this particular representative care about what he’s doing in government when he knows the vast majority of his constituents pay little to no attention to his behavior as their representative? All that matters is the D or R by this House member’s name, not whether he knows or follows the state Constitution.
But, it was my conversation with the state senator that truly alarmed me and confirmed the sad lack of respect for the Constitution in our country. In discussing bills passed the General Assembly, I pulled out the NC State Constitution, a hard copy, marked up and used by me. I opened it up and showed my state senator a section that had caused me to question the Constitutionality of certain bills being passed by the General Assembly. I showed the senator the section, a section that she seemed to have never seen.
So, I asked: “When you, or anyone in the General Assembly, goes to write a bill, do you consult this constitution to see if you actually have the power to write the law you’re about to write? Or do you just come up with ideas on the fly and never even look at the Constitution?”
To which she replied, “Oh no, we never look at the Constitution. We just come up with ideas…”
Yup. That’s what she said, as if looking at the Constitution before writing bills would be a little absurd.
Why They Don’t Care
This kind of apathetic treatment of the Constitution at the state level (imagine it at the federal?) is the direct result of the people choosing not to care what the Constitution says or whether or not our politicians know and follow it.
Why should this state senator feel the need to consult the document both limiting and confining her power when she knows her constituents likely know little to nothing about it? She’ll get the votes she needs because of the D or R next to her name and the big issues about which she legislates to pander to her base.
Friends, the Constitution (both state and federal) is only as powerful as we make it. If we don’t know it, if we stop believing in it, and if we stop fighting to enforce it, it has no power.
And all we’re left with is a government that derives power from itself–arbitrarily, so that there’s literally nothing stopping it from saying “off with your head” anytime it well pleases.
The Liberty Belle