Will vs. Paul on the Constitutional Limits of Government


George Will's current Newsweek column is garnering a lot of attention in the right-wing blogosphere. (See here and here, for example.) The article discusses Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and his potential run for the GOP presidential nomination. Since the big three candidates, McCain, Romney, and Giuliani, are getting all the coverage, Will's decision to cover a dark horse candidate like Rep. Paul is interesting.

I guess Rep. Paul and his supporters could take heart in the old adage that there is no such thing as bad press, although that applies to Hollywood more so than it does to Washington, DC. The article is superficially flattering. It portrays Rep. Paul as a man of firm convictions. But on close reading, Will is clearly making a point at Rep. Paul's expense. Whether the average reader will primarily take from the column the flattering characterization of Rep. Paul as a man of principle or Will's more subversive point, remains to be seen. The dual nature of Will's intent is reflected in the title of the article "Cheerful Anachronism." Notice it is not "Cheerful Man of Principle."

Some of the blogosphere commentary has noted that Will's attitude seems condescending. It surely does, although dismissive might better describe the sense I get. The Will column also perfectly illustrates the tyranny of the center dynamic that I discussed in a recent column. Only centrists are allowed in the polite discussion. You must shed your silly little ideological convictions at the door, or you will not be allowed a "seat at the table."

You have to hand it to Will; the column requires a bit of deconstructing, but it communicates his message quite well. Here is Will's message in a nutshell; all you "eccentrics" like Paul who want to strictly interpret the Constitution may not be vilified, but you will be casually dismissed while the rest of us are about the real business of doling out the booty. 

Will writes, "[Paul] believes, with more stubbornness than evidence, that the federal government is a government of strictly enumerated powers…" "With more stubbornness than evidence" suggests that Will disagrees. That that was not, in fact, what the Founders intended. Given that clear implication, the reader expects a rigorous defense of a broad reading of the Constitution to follow, but very little in the way of real argument and counter-evidence is offered.

It seems Will is using the size of the current government as his de facto proof that Rep. Paul is wrong. The fact that Rep. Paul is often swimming upstream even among his supposedly conservative fellow Republicans is all the evidence that is needed that Rep. Paul is in the wrong, or perhaps more accurately and more devastatingly for Will, that right or wrong, he is irrelevant.

But clearly, to determine what the Founders intended you shouldn't look at the bloated monstrosity of a federal government that we have today and conclude Rep. Paul is in error. (Bush recently submitted a three trillion dollar budget. Is that bloated monstrosity enough for you?) To determine what the Founders intended you must look at what they had to say on the matter. Novel approach, I know.

Will is good enough to provide that evidence to the discerning reader within the body of his own column, saving the lazy scholar from even having to Google some references. Will writes, "Paul will unfurl his banner emblazoned with James Madison's Federalist Paper No. 45: u2018The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined.'"

So let's see, James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," wrote in one of the Federalist Papers, essays that were intended to support the ratification of that Constitution, that the delegated powers are "few and defined." What more evidence would Will like? (Much more can be found.) Rep. Paul could submit that quote alone and pretty much rest his case. Unless Will is suggesting that Madison was being deceptive, that settles it, does it not?

Will barely musters a constitutional defense for big government. It’s as if he doesn't feel he needs to. He writes, "Even before the Founders' generation passed from the scene, the government was slipping off the leash that Madison said – and Paul says – the Constitution puts on it." This is unfortunately an unequivocally true statement. So it was. But isn't that really evidence for the anti-Federalist's case that the Constitution's safeguards were insufficient, instead of proof that the Founders didn't really mean it. Will seems to suggest that all the Founders had their fingers crossed. "Ha, Ha. Fooled you." (An anti-Federalist case can and has been made that the Founders really were up to no good – Patrick Henry's "I smell a rat!" – but that is not the case Will is making. Will is making the hyper-Federalist case.)

Will weakly presents as evidence for his side Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase. "Where did Jefferson find constitutional authority for making the Louisiana Purchase?" Funny he should ask that. Jefferson himself worried that the purchase was unconstitutional. He even drafted a constitutional amendment to authorize it. In the end Jefferson allowed his pragmatic concerns to trump his theoretical concerns, but the actual technical constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase is not the slam dunk that Will implies. (Or is Will really implying that it is silly to even consider such a thing?)

Big government (sic) conservatives like Will can and do assert that strictly limited government is no longer desirable or feasible. They argue that Paul/Madison–style strict construction is no longer politically practical. They have decided that conservatives must learn to live with big government and should even use it to their advantage. But Will is playing fast and loose with the historical record when he suggests, mostly by insinuation, that strict limits were not actually what the Founders intended. Had they intended otherwise, the Constitution would not have been ratified.

Despite Will's snide remarks insinuating Rep. Paul's lack of "evidence," intellectual honesty requires that Will and his big government (sic) conservative friends admit they don't really care what the Founders thought about limited government. For them history is an inconvenient impediment, and they don't need stubborn politicians like Rep. Paul continually bringing it up. This is the year 2007, and they have a country to govern and elections to win.

In a roundabout way Will does admit this. He ends his column thus, "Still, Paul is not only a cheerful anachronism but a useful one. He forces us to consider the continuing relevance of some old arguments, and he reminds us that much of the reverence for the Founders is more rhetorical than operational." Notice Paul is not useful because he holds conservative's feet to the fire. He is useful because he exposes how anachronistic those "old arguments" are, allowing us to finally move along.

Will likely finds frequent conservative appeals to the Constitution and limited government insincere and hypocritical, which they no doubt are. Perhaps in that sense Will's candor is refreshing. I think Will would be happy if Rep. Paul, who actually means what he says, sufficiently embarrasses his "conservative" colleagues out of their frequent invocations of the Constitution when they recognize the true implications of strictly following that document. Let us hope and pray that Rep. Paul's candidacy has the opposite effect. That instead it embarrasses some "conservatives" into re-adopting the limits contained in a document their stated guiding philosophy used to consider more than a rhetorical flourish.

January 20, 2007