Pay No Attention to This Day

by Harry Browne

September 17, 2003       

This day isn’t important.

There are far more significant days in the year:

       Labor Day, when we pretend to care about other people’s jobs while frolicking at the beach.

       Election Day, when we pretend we’re making a difference by voting.

       Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Susan B. Anthony Day, when we pretend to be politically correct.

       Memorial Day, when we pretend that we live in a free country because of all the people who were killed in the government’s senseless wars.

       Flag Day, when we pretend the government is America.

       Veterans Day (formerly Armistice Day, when we pretended that World War I made the world safe for democracy).

       National Teachers Day, when we pretend our children are getting an education.

       Earth Day, when we pretend that making the government more powerful will make the environment cleaner.

       United Nations Day, when we pretend to believe all those inane statements about world peace.

Today doesn’t seem to come anywhere near those days in importance.

You see, today is supposed to be Constitution Day. And no one really cares about the Constitution anymore.

What It Was

The Constitution was supposed to spell out what government can do and what it can’t do. The government’s few legal functions are listed in Article 1, Section 8. It was a revolutionary document, in that no government in history had ever had its duties and restrictions so carefully defined.

Despite frequent violations of the Constitution by the government, the document did its job reasonably well for the first hundred years making America the freest country in history.

As late as 1887, when Congress passed a bill providing federal relief to drought-stricken Texas farmers, Grover Cleveland vetoed it, saying, "I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution." 

But that was about the last gasp for limited, Constitutional government. Because the Constitution wasn’t self-enforcing, it depended on the good intentions of politicians something Thomas Jefferson specifically warned against in 1798 when he said, "In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

Michael Cloud put it more succinctly in recent years: "The problem isn’t the abuse of power, it’s the power to abuse." So long as the politicians have the power, they’ll abuse it. And the Constitution was intended to prevent the politicians from getting the power to abuse.

The Transformation

But by the end of the 1800s, too many Americans had lost their fear of government and politicians. The introduction of government schools had made it almost certain that most children would never learn the importance of binding down government with the chains of the Constitution.

And so government was transformed in the public mind from a necessary-but-dangerous evil into "the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else," as Frédéric Bastiat described it.

More and more, the Constitution became a political toy, to be tossed about, invoked, ignored, or misrepresented whatever suited a given politician’s agenda at any given moment.

The income tax amendment in 1913 hammered the final nail into the coffin of limited, constitutional government. Now the politicians had not only the authority, but also the unlimited revenue, to do whatever they wanted. It seems very, very unlikely, for example, that Americans would have been dragged into World War I if the government hadn’t had the unlimited revenue to finance it.

Even the Bill of Rights which eliminates all ambiguity by spelling out specific things the government may not do was relegated to second place behind the needs of politicians. By the first World War, the Supreme Court had decided that the words "Congress shall make no law . . . " don’t really mean that "Congress shall make no law . . . " They mean only that the government must have a "compelling interest" in doing something. Not surprisingly, the government employees on the Court almost always decide that the government does have a compelling interest.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Those conservatives who still care about the Constitution say that it should be taught in the schools. As though government employees will emphasize the original purpose of the Constitution in restraining government. Instead, they’ll give snap quizes on such weighty questions as "How many years in a Senator’s term?" or "Who appoints the Supreme Court justices?"

If the American people are to learn the importance of limited, Constitutional government, we have to teach them ourselves.

But people aren’t interested in academic lectures on constitutional government. They’re far more interested in their own lives and rightly so.

That’s why repealing the federal income tax is our best tool. We can offer them the reward of never paying income tax again in exchange for giving up any unconstitutional federal programs.

The next time you want someone to understand the importance of the Constitution, try approaching him this way . . . 

If we repeal the federal income tax and yours is an average American family, you’ll have at least $10,000 a year more to spend or invest. What will you do with that money?

  Will you put your children in a private school, where they can get whatever kind of education you want for them?

  Will you help your favorite cause or charity in a way you’ve never been able to do before?

  Will you start that business you’ve always wanted, plan a better retirement, send your children to college?

All you have to do in return is to restrict the government to the Constitution giving up whatever pittance unconstitutional government provides to you personally.

If you try this, you may be surprised to find that the Constitution isn’t such a hard sell after all.

And maybe someday Constitution Day will mean something again.