Tyrants among us


What angers Americans in the Tea Party movement is tyranny. And well it should. It is spreading in Washington even more than usual.

Our Declaration of Independence still speaks for us where it says:

"But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security."

Lawless government is an unmistakable sign of tyranny, i.e., government that exercises power not under law or according to the authority given to it by consent of the governed, but on an authority it claims to have in itself.

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The recent healthcare reform legislation is an example of governing tyrannically. The law requires people to purchase health insurance when they, perhaps because they are young and healthy, presently do not carry it. This is not a tax. It is the government telling you to do something because they believe it is good for the country. It is not conditional upon any other behavior. It says, "You will do this or we will punish you with a fine."

I have not heard a credible argument from any elected officeholder justifying this provision constitutionally. Even the president, who has taught constitutional law, made only a vague reference to the state requirement that people buy car insurance. But that mandate is conditional upon owning a car for use on public roads. If people take the bus or walk, they can decline the purchase. But this is government exercising authority beyond what the Constitution allows, authority the people did not entrust to it. This is power exercised tyrannically, and on a grand scale.

At a constituent meeting, Rep. Phil Hare, a Democratic congressman from Illinois, stated with unguarded candor (as though it were no big deal) his disregard for the constitutional limits of congressional power when it comes to providing for what he thinks is the public good.

When asked to locate in the Constitution where Congress gets the authority to require everyone to buy health insurance, his response was, "I don't worry about the Constitution on this. . . . I care more about the people dying every day who don't have healthcare." In a half-hearted attempt to find a constitutional hook on which to hang the law after the fact, he cited the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, thinking that he was quoting the Constitution. When someone pointed out that these words are found in the Declaration of Independence, he expressed indifference to the distinction. "Doesn't matter to me. Either one."

In other words, when it comes to doing good, constitutional restraints are irrelevant. They don't apply. The legal constraints of the Constitution---in the eyes of congressmen like Phil Hare and, apparently, the president---are only for bad people. The goodness of the obviously good things that good-hearted people do with government power is the ultimate foundation of public authority, transcending even the Constitution. Another way of stating this view is that moral progress is the fundamental law of the land. It is the unwritten constitution behind the written Constitution. That is to say, the politically progressive use of power is self-authorizing. Every other exercise of civil authority must be subject to constitutional limitations because that is what a constitution is for.

This lawlessly self-flattering attitude seems to draw, but unfaithfully, from Cicero's maxim, Salus populi suprema lex esto, "the welfare of the people is the highest law." By salus, he meant the well-being or safety of the people. He was saying that because the individual depends on the community for the enjoyment of his private goods, and even for his very life, his individual good must yield to the public good in general when the two come into conflict. No law needs to state this. It is in the nature of the political relationship. In that sense it is the supreme law that transcends even the most fundamental written laws.

Cicero's maxim is one for emergencies, however. Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue these days are governing as though it were the ordinary basis for legislative activity, or, to speak more cautiously, as though the fullest and immediate expansion of the welfare state were a matter of national emergency.

But in the face of such tyrannical usurpation of authority, such an obvious design to reduce us under the absolute despotism of benevolent technocracy does not justify violence. It does, however, justify vigilance. Every patriot should exercise that vigilance at the ballot box in November, asking him or herself the question, "Does this candidate govern or promise to govern under the laws, or regardless of the laws as a law himself?" Will this candidate govern as a benevolent despot, or as a public servant under law?


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