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Learn the Constitution, Or Else

Mises Daily: Friday, September 16, 2005 by

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Starting this year, every educational institution receiving federal aid must teach about the U.S. Constitution on the September 17 anniversary of its signing (September 16 in 2005, as the 17th is a Saturday).

The requirement is ironic, given that it came from the Senate's leading Constitutional scholar, yet clearly conflicts with the Constitution, and on many grounds.

Last year, Senator Robert Byrd (D.-W.Va.) inserted it into a spending bill packed with pork that was blatantly inconsistent with Americans' general welfare, which is the Constitution's rationale. There is nothing in the document that permits the federal government to tell local schools what they can and cannot teach.

The bill was also at odds with the 10th Amendment's restriction of the federal government to only its enumerated powers, as well as the 9th Amendment's guarantee of liberty, the 13th amendment's prohibition of involuntary servitude, as well as the whole spirit of the document that is supposed to restrict what the federal government can do.

Questions about his "solution" aside, Senator Byrd is correct about our insufficient Constitutional knowledge. For instance, two-thirds of adults said detailed knowledge of what is in the Constitution was "absolutely essential," but only one in six claimed such knowledge, in a National Constitution Center poll.

What will public schools teach about the Constitution? Most likely, they will emphasize its democratic character: that is, that it set up a framework for majority rule that was gradually perfected over time through the expansion of the franchise and, along with it, the size and scope of federal management of national life.

America's Constitution is far from an endorsement of majority rule. The founders did believe in voting to select who should be entrusted with the power of government, but the more important, prior question they asked was: "What power will the federal government be granted?" The overwhelming consensus in those classically liberal days was that goverment should leave society and economy alone.

That is why the Constituion grants so few powers to goverment and the the Bill of Rights is devoted to what the government is not allowed to do, regardless of majority sentiment. As Jefferson said, our founders fought not for democracy, but for government "tied down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

The Constitution contains several non-majority rules to protect Americans against abuse of their rights by their government, such as the Supreme Court's power to strike down unconstitutional federal laws, regardless of how many votes they received, the presidential veto power, as well as the right of the Congress to impeach the president. In that, it reflected our founders' antipathy toward pure majority rule.

James Madison said "democracies ... have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths." Thomas Jefferson warned that "[an] elective despotism was not the government we fought for," and that "The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society." Alexander Hamilton asserted that "Real liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy."

However, many today feel that the founders' opposition to unlimited democracy can be squared with majority rule by saying, "also protecting the rights of the minority." But our lack of Constitutional knowledge means that believing in protecting the rights of minorities does not protect them in fact.


  Born in radicalism: $100

Since Americans don't clearly understand their Constitutional rights against government abuse, the habit of deference to political majorities results in those rights being steamrollered whenever more than 50% vote to do so. Examples are plentiful. Despite the Constitution's imposition of strictly limited and enumerated federal powers, there is no area of our lives it does not now reach. And with our protections eroding, majority voting controls more and more of what our founders intended to put off-limits to political determination.

Sadly, Americans' inattention to the highest law of the land puts our most essential rights and liberties at risk, as we can't effectively defend what we are only vaguely aware of. Unless we once again take them as seriously, and vigorously defend the safeguards against government encroachment, self-government will continue to erode. However, a citizenry that doesn't even note the irony in using an approach inconsistent with the principles of the Constitution in order to promote understanding of the Constitution is far from that goal.

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Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Send him MAIL, and see his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive. Discuss this article on the blog.