The US Constitution brought into existence a federal government whose powers were limited to those enumerated in the Constitution itself. If a power wasn’t enumerated, it simply could not be exercised.
That’s because our American ancestors didn’t trust governmental power. They clearly understood, based on both historical knowledge and life experience, that the greatest threat to their freedom and well-being lay with their very own federal government.
That’s why there was such a deep antipathy toward a type of government that had an enormous and permanent military-intelligence establishment. Our American ancestors knew that a government of that nature would wield the power to destroy their liberty and well-being.
Even though the American people ended up accepting the Constitution and its concept of limited power, there were still very leery of the new federal government. For more than 10 years before they accepted the Constitution, they had operated under a type of governmental system called the Articles of Confederation, under which the powers of the federal government were so weak that it wasn’t even given the power to tax.
Further reflecting their lack of trust in the Constitution and the new federal government, our Americans demanded the enactment of the Bill of Rights, which expressly forbade the federal government from destroying people’s fundamental rights.
Why did Americans see the need to expressly prohibit the federal government from destroying such rights as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the right to own and bear arms? Because they firmly believed that that is precisely what federal officials would do if they were not expressly prohibited from doing it!
Why did Americans demand the enactment of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments? Because they firmly believed that without those express restrictions on power, federal officials would use their power to do such things as kill or jail people or seize their money and property without due process of law, use kangaroo Star Chamber-like courts to convict them, barge into people’s homes or businesses without warrants to search for incriminating evidence, jail people indefinitely without trial, and subject people to cruel and unusual punishments like torture.
The Bill of Rights is a living testament to the extent to which Americans distrusted the federal government.
A question naturally arises: Do all these protections against the federal government’s destruction of people’s liberty and well-being go out the window in the event of an emergency or a crisis? Should they?
The fact is that there is no emergency or crisis exception in either the original Constitution or the Bill of Rights. That is, there is no provision that says, “In the event of an emergency or crisis, the federal government will be permitted to exercise powers that are not enumerated and to ignore restrictions on its power.”
There is a good reason why the Framers and our ancestors chose not to include an emergency or crisis exception that would enable federal officials to exercise omnipotent, totalitarian-like powers over the people. The reason is that they understood that throughout history, emergencies and crises have furnished the excuse for federal officials to wield and exercise tyrannical powers.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons that rulers oftentimes do their best to generate emergencies or crises. They know that it is during emergencies and crises that people become so afraid that they are willing, even eager, to surrender their liberties and their rights, “temporarily” of course, in exchange for being kept “safe.” Of course, “temporarily” almost always means “permanently” because rulers are loath to give up powers once wielded and exercised.
That’s what happened, for example, during the Great Depression, when Americans traded away their economic liberty for the purported security of a permanent welfare state. A modern-day example of this phenomenon was when Americans traded away their rights of liberty and privacy in the fear-driven crisis following the 9/11 attacks, as reflected by their support of such things as the TSA takeover of the airports, the establishment of a Homeland Security Agency, the perpetual “war on terrorism,” and the adoption and exercise of such totalitarian-like powers as torture, state-sponsored assassinations, indefinite detention, and kangaroo judicial proceedings.
To restore our rights and liberties, we need a rebirth of liberty within the hearts and minds of the American people. When that happens, people will demand a restoration of the proper role of government in American society, one that protects, not destroys, the rights and liberties of the people.
Reprinted with permission from Future of Freedom Foundation.