Honoring the Rules

“In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” — Thomas Jefferson

Why didn't Jefferson, Madison and other American presidents of the 19th century simply stretch the Constitution until it included poverty assistance to individuals? Why does it seem to have hardly ever occurred to them? Many factors and reasons explain this, but this one was paramount: Such power was not to be found in the rule book.

Let me elaborate. Imagine playing a game — baseball, gin rummy, Monopoly or whatever — in which there is only one rule: anything goes.

What kind of a game would this be? Chaotic, frustrating, unpredictable, impossible. Eventually, the whole thing would degenerate into a free-for-all. And while simple games would be intolerable if played this way, the consequences for the many deadly serious things humans engage in — from driving on the highways to waging war — would be almost too frightful to imagine.

The most profound political and philosophical trend of our time is a serious erosion of any consensus about what government is supposed to do and what it is not supposed to do. But this was not so in Jefferson and Madison's day. The "instruction books" at that time were America's founding documents, namely the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. In the spirit of those great works, most Americans shared a common view of "the sum of good government" — the protection of life and property.

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Today, far too many people think that government exists to do anything for anybody at any time they ask for it, from children's day care to handouts for artists. Texas congressman Ron Paul is noted for blowing the whistle whenever a bill is proposed that violates the spirit or the letter of the Constitution, but quite often he does so all by himself. How are his appeals received by the great majority of other members of Congress? "Like water off a duck's back," he once told me.

I once gave a series of lectures to high school seniors, and I asked the students what they thought the responsibilities of government were. I heard "provide jobs" or "take care of the poor" far more often than I heard anything like "safeguard our freedoms." (In fact, I think the only time I heard the latter was when I said it myself.)

A while back, an organization called the Communitarian Network made news when it called for the federal government to make organ donations mandatory, so that each citizen's body after death could be "harvested" for the benefit of sick people. Like ending poverty, helping sick people is a good cause, but is it really a duty of government to take your kidneys?

You can imagine how Jefferson and Madison might have answered such a question. In their day, Americans appreciated the concept of individual rights and entertained very little of this nonsense. But there is no consensus today even on what a right is, let alone which ones free citizens have.

Years ago when the Reagan administration proposed abolishing subsidies to Amtrak, the nationalized passenger rail service, I was struck by a dissenter who phrased her objection on national television this way: "I don't know how those people in Washington expect us to get around out here. We have a right to this service."

Once when Congress voted to stop funding the printing of Playboy magazine in Braille, the American Council of the Blind filed suit in federal court, charging that the congressional action constituted censorship and denial of a basic right.

The lofty notion that individuals possess certain rights — definable, inalienable and sacred — has been cheapened beyond anything our Founders and early presidents would recognize. When those gifted thinkers asserted rights to "freedom of speech," "freedom of the press" or "freedom of assembly," they did not mean to say that one has a right to be given a microphone, a printing press, a lecture hall or a Playboy magazine at someone else's expense.

Indeed, their concept of rights did not require the initiation of force against others, or the elevation of any "want" to a lawful lien on the life or property of any other citizen. Each individual was deemed a unique and sovereign being, who required only that other citizens deal with him honestly and voluntarily or not at all. It was this notion of rights that became an important theme of America's founding documents and early presidencies. It is the only notion of rights that does not produce an unruly mob in which each person has his hands in someone else's pocket.

This wisdom prompted early Americans to add a Bill of Rights to a Constitution that already contained a separation of government powers, checks and balances, and numerous "thou-shalt-nots" directed at government itself. They knew — unlike tens of millions of Americans today — that a government that lacks narrow rules and strict boundaries, that robs Peter to pay Paul, that confuses rights with wants, will yield financial ruin at best and political tyranny at worst.

Jefferson, Madison and almost all of the succeeding 20 presidents of the 19th century were constrained by this view of the federal government, and most of them were happy to comply with it. When doing so, they were faithful to their charge. They were true poverty fighters, because they knew that if liberty were not preserved, poverty would be the least of our troubles. They had read the rule book, and they knew the importance of following the rules.