City Journal has posted a 5,500 word article by Myron Magnet with the above title — here’s the subtitle: “Presidents, Congresses, and courts are creating an elective despotism.” Conservatives already know the topic, and we see the negative consequences all around us, but this piece makes for interesting reading. Here are just the first three paragraphs:
How far have we distorted the Constitution that the Founders gave us, and how much does it matter? A phalanx of recent books warns that we have undermined our fundamental law so recklessly that Americans should worry that government of the people, by the people, and for the people really could perish from the earth. The tomes—Adam Freedman’s engaging The Naked Constitution, Mark R. Levin’s impassioned The Liberty Amendments, Richard A. Epstein’s masterful The Classical Liberal Constitution, and Philip K. Howard’s eloquent and levelheaded The Rule of Nobody (in order of publication)—look at the question from different angles and offer different fixes to it, but all agree that Americans need to take action right now.
Before we scramble, though, we had better understand just what happened. There’s no single villain. As these books show, all branches of government conspired over more than a century to turn the Constitution that the Framers wrote in 1787, plus the Bill of Rights that James Madison shepherded through the first Congress in 1789 and the Fourteenth Amendment ratified in 1868, into something their authors would neither recognize nor endorse.
The signal feature of the 1787 Constitution was its prudent restraint. The Framers learned from hard Revolutionary War experience that their new nation needed a more powerful central government than the Articles of Confederation authorized. But they bestowed the requisite powers with a trembling hand, knowing that the men who would exercise them were not angels but humans, as fallible as all other men—and usually more so, since overweening ambition and self-interest, not patriotism, are the standard spurs to seeking office. Recognizing that electing your officials doesn’t ensure that they won’t become as tyrannical as the hereditary monarchs the colonists had fled, the Framers’ hemmed in and divided government authority, giving Congress only 19 specific powers that mostly concerned raising taxes, coining money, spending it on “the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States” (meaning keeping the country safe), building post offices and post roads (but not turnpikes and canals), regulating the armed forces, and making laws necessary and proper to carry out these limited functions. Constitution architect James Madison, always at the vortex of the fierce disputes over what measures these enumerated powers implied as necessary and proper, concluded—after serving for a quarter-century as a congressman, secretary of state, and president—that the bedrock constitutional principle was simply to ensure that America does not “convert a limited into an unlimited Govt.”
Read more: City Journal
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