Whatever happened to the Constitution?

Last week the American Enterprise Institute convened a debate between Rep. Paul Ryan and New York Times columnist David Brooks on the subject of limited government. As advertised, Rep. Ryan was to deliver the case for limited government and Brooks was to counter with the case for “energetic” government. The debate was triggered by the Wall Street Journal column co-authored by Rep. Ryan with AEI president Arthur Brooks and David Brooks’s column responding to it. (Rep. Ryan continued the exchange here. Charles Murray commented here.)
AEI has posted the video of the debate. The debate is somewhat frustrating. Limited government is supposedly the subject, yet the debaters mostly address concerns about the size rather than the scope of government. It seems to me that this confuses the issue. Limited government properly refers to the thought underlying the original Constitution that leads to the limitation of the powers of the government. The government’s powers were specified and limited in order to secure the rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.
Rep. Ryan gets to the heart of the subject briefly in his rejoinder to Brooks’s opening statement, but then duty calls. When Ryan leaves to cast a vote, Brooks avows his belief in the New Deal while rejecting the Great Society. The Great Society, however, followed from the New Deal, and rejection of the Great Society should lead a fortiori to the rejection of Obamaism, yet Brooks is something of a fan. Here I want to draw on comments I have previously posted to provide some context for the debate between Ryan and Brooks.
As R.J. Pestritto has demonstrated, the intellectual roots of modern liberalism lie in an assault on the ideas of natural rights and limited government. They eventuate in an administrative state and rule by supposed experts. Obamacare represents something like the full flowering of modern liberalism.
The roots of modern liberalism are reflected in the scholarly work of Woodrow Wilson. Reading Wilson is an educational experience. It is shocking to read the expressions of his disaffection for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Wilson’s expressions of disapproval are the precursor to Barack Obama’s disdain for the Constitution and the Warren Court. Obama perfectly reflected Wilson’s views in his 2001 comments on the civil rights movement and the Supreme Court. In the course of the famous radio interview Obama gave to WBEZ in Chicago, Obama observed that the Warren Court had not broken “free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it’s been interpreted, and the Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties.” To achieve “redistributive change,” the limitations of the Constitution would have to be overcome by the Court or by Congress.
Franklin Roosevelt touted welfare state liberalism in the “second Bill of Rights” that he set forth to Congress in his 1944 State of the Union Address. “Necessitous men are not free men,” Roosevelt asserted, and enumerated a new set of rights, among which were the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation, the right of every family to a decent home, and the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
Implicitly arguing that the teaching of the Declaration had become obsolete, Roosevelt asserted: “In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.”
Abraham Lincoln’s argument with Stephen Douglas also came down to a disagreement over the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln articulated this disagreement with special gusto in his critique of Douglas on July 10, 1858.
According to Douglas, the teaching of the Declaration had no general applicability beyond the immediate situation that confronted the Founding Fathers. Restating Douglas’s argument, Lincoln asked “in all soberness, if all these things, if indulged in, if ratified, if confirmed and endorsed, if taught to our children, and repeated to them, do not tend to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this Government into a government of some other form.” This is certainly one of the questions that is raised in acute form by the doctrine of welfare state liberalism in general and by Obamacare in particular as one case in point.
The economic “rights” asserted by Roosevelt in his second Bill of Rights differ and conflict with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They are claims on the liberty of others. If I have a right to medical care, you must have a corresponding duty to supply it. If I have a right to a decent home, you must have a duty to provide it.
The argument for the welfare state belongs in the same family as “the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden.” That’s Lincoln again.
Lincoln memorably derided the underlying principle as “the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.”
If Obamacare is constitutional, we have experienced the demise of limited government. If the government can, among other things, command citizens to purchase health insurance of a prescribed shape and size, you can bet it will be using this power in a variety of (other) unpleasing ways in the future. As the Tea Party folks recognize, it’s time to take a stand.
Yet there has been remarkably little discussion of the constitutional revision involved here. One wonders if we truly understand or appreciate limited government and the Constitution anymore. In May National Review published Charles Kesler’s superb essay “The Constitution, at last.” A far more appropriate title for the essay would have been “Whatever happened to the Constitution?” It seems to me a question that is raised by the debate between Rep. Ryan and Brooks as well.
UPDATE: Via RealClearPolitics, I see that James Antle coincidentally makes closely related points in another context.

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