observed that it is the tendency for liberty to yield over time
and for government to grow. Benjamin Franklin commented that the
Founders had built a Republic, but it was up to succeeding generations
to "keep it." Those who value liberty look back at the
American experience and see that the system designed by the Founding
Fathers to limit the power of the federal government has mostly
been eviscerated. Federalism, the enumeration of powers, the bill
of rights, checks and balances among the branches of the government,
etc., have at best slowed the growth of the Leviathan state. Today,
there are practically no institutional restraints on federal power;
the only true limitation is economic law. What went wrong? Clearly
there were numerous breakdowns in the Constitutional system along
the way, many well documented in the Libertarian literature. However,
one could spend a lifetime of technical research and still not arrive
at a completely satisfying answer to this question.
the other hand, there is another way of answering this question
which gets to the heart of Franklin's insight. In 1776, American
patriots had a great distrust of their distant central government,
resented the British taxes imposed upon them, and felt a loyalty
to their own colonies (subsequently their states). Today, Americans
live with chronic high taxes, continual warfare, horrendous government
debt, and an ever-encroaching State. Yet many believe that the Leviathan
state is a great advancement over the initial Republic. Among those
who are less than satisfied with the status quo, most have been
persuaded to believe that the deficiencies of our current system
are the result of the wrong people holding power (e.g., Democrats,
Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives, etc.). Only a handful recognize
that our problems are systemic in nature and are the inevitable
result of ceding virtually unlimited power to a centralized government.
From this perspective, the question then becomes "Is there
anything the Founders could have done to keep alive the spirit of
1776?" Because the bottom line is that, unless the People are
sufficiently wary of and intolerant of actual and potential governmental
abuses, liberty is doomed. We know that written documents cannot
long sustain that necessary human awareness. Yet there is another
avenue for keeping alive eternal truths and the memory of ancient
experience, the phenomenon known as ritual. In the rest of this
piece, I will share a few examples where the initial design has
broken down and show how the creative incorporation of ritual into
the Constitutional framework might have helped to keep alive the
spirit of 1776.
of the Union Address
was quite a breakthrough in political accountability to require
that the president report on the State of the Union each year. Unfortunately,
over time this speech has degenerated into a long-winded infomercial
describing all of the exploits of the past year and paving the way
for a whole new slate of interventions. Imagine how differently
Americans would respond if the president were constrained by the
following required language and format:
I share with you the State of the Union, in the manner prescribed
in our Constitution. This annual address is required because our
Founding Fathers placed a great value on Liberty and knew that the
potential for federal usurpation of power and the resulting tyrannizing
of its citizens would always be a danger, even with the democratic
selection of representatives. As I swore at my inauguration, my
duty is to uphold the Constitution. In my speech, I will lay out
how my program is compatible with the powers enumerated in that
document. In the first 10 minutes, I will present my own message.
In the next 20 minutes, I will respond to the 6 most common questions
and concerns submitted by the citizens of this land."
Notion of Public Servant
are constantly reminded that those in government are doing a great
public service, allegedly at personal sacrifice, and that we should
be very grateful for this. In reality, we see officials who secure
for themselves great perks, immunity from the law, and indifference
to the hardships they impose on ordinary citizens. Clearly, they
have become public servants in name only, for all practical purposes.
How might the Founders have prevented this unfortunate role reversal
by employing the power of ritual? Well, how do we identify people
who are functioning as servants? To start with, they wear uniforms
which identify them as such and symbolize their subordinate status.
So how about a Constitutional dress code? All presidents, lawmakers,
and federal judges are to dress in a manner befitting a butler or
maid, at all times while they are serving in these capacities. And
these rules will need to be detailed, so as to not allow room for
of Oath of Office
Founders were wise enough to include provision for removal of presidents.
Unfortunately, this mechanism has seldom been used and, when it
has been utilized, it has often been for the wrong reasons. Even
a president who has been caught abusing his powers is afforded a
comfortable retirement, an opportunity to write his memoirs, and
the prospect of returning to public life in the role of elder statesman.
Clearly, these conditions will not prevent liberty from yielding
and government from growing. What follows is a partial solution
to this problem, in one particularly problematic arena.
year after he has made his case for taking the country to war and
the Congress has declared war, a referendum shall be made on the
question of whether or not the president has deceived the citizens
into supporting the war venture. If a majority votes yes, the president
will need to step down. Now what kinds of rituals might truly reinforce
a consequence such as this? Hearkening back to earlier American
history, the practice of tar and feathering comes to mind. Of course,
religions are a great potential source of inspiration for ritual
practices. How about this: 40 years of wandering in the desert might
allow the ex-president ample time for contemplation of his misdeeds
and also ensure that he does not return to public life!
Saul Weiner [send him mail]
is an actuary and writer living in the suburbs of Chicago.