The Constitution and Power: My Two Cents

Since government power and the Constitution are on everyone’s mind these days, and since the Constitution greatly interests me, I thought this week I would add my two cents.

First, the Constitution did not establish a democracy, it established a republic.  In a democracy the people rule, which means that our elected representatives would have to do whatever the majority of their constituents wanted them to do on a particular issue.  That could — and, in fact, before the Constitution was ratified, it did — threaten the rights of the many minority groups within the 13 states.  Protecting minority rights is one reason the Founders created the Constitution.

By contrast, in a republic, elected representatives are tasked with balancing what the majority wants against their own best judgments as experienced legislators.   The Founders had a healthy skepticism about the people’s willingness to subjugate their own self interests for the good of the whole so they created “auxiliary protections” (James Madison’s words) against pure democratic government.

Second, the Founders did not create a Constitution designed to keep government small. They created a Constitution designed to keep government limited, which is a very different thing.  As to those responsibilities that the Constitution assigned to the national government — foreign policy and national defense, for example — the Founders wanted the government to be big enough — to have enough power — to meet those responsibilities. But the Constitution also limits the government’s responsibilities; it gives it a finite number of enumerated powers and responsibilities, and the list is not long.  All other powers (there are specific exceptions) are supposed to belong to the states.

Speaking of which, one reason the balance of power between the national government and state governments has shifted so decidedly to the former is that the Founders’ original constitutional architecture has been altered.  The Founders created a system in which each branch of government was chosen by, and therefore was beholden to, a different and often competing set of interests.  That was the whole theory behind checks and balances.  Presidents were elected by an independent electoral college, congressmen were elected by the people, and senators — at least until 1913—were appointed by state legislators.

That meant senators were beholden to the interests of their states, but in 1913 the 17th Amendment required that senators also be elected by the people, which has significantly reduced the influence the states have in the national government.

Finally, despite what others might say, the Constitution was created for one reason only — to preserve individual liberty.  Therefore the question before us today is: have the government’s powers and responsibilities grown far beyond what the Founders intended — I believe they clearly have — and if so, does this benefit or threaten liberty?