The Founding Philosophers

It has been nearly a year since Chief Justice John Roberts nailed the coffin shut on any shred of a limited government legacy left behind by the Bush administration in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, better known as the Obamacare ruling. The Affordable Care Act – an almost laughable misnomer were our healthcare and thus our very lives not at risk as a consequence – remains in force, against all principles of reason and sound economics, as a result of the Chief Justice’s poor jurisprudence. The errors in the majority opinion were numerous and far-reaching – not novel in any legal sense, as the precedents on which the ruling rests are over half a century old, having aged to the point that the socialist stench emanating from them cannot simply be said to be a hysterical delusion of the right. The Roberts ruling was interesting, however, in that he gratuitously libeled the Founding Fathers and the principles on which they built the most moral system government mankind had yet seen in their time.

In many respects, the manner in which Roberts smeared the Framers of the Constitution is but another chapter in the right’s continual contempt for ideas in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But in calling the framers “‘practical statesmen,’ not metaphysical philosophers,” Roberts goes a step further, essentially arguing that the creation of the United States Constitution was the result of mere pragmatism, not the product of “speculations or theories” (i.e., ideas or principles). Here, Roberts is not merely exhibiting his own contempt for ideas by formulating a poor ruling – he is attributing his own philosophic shortcomings to the Founders themselves, and thus, the very fabric of our nation’s government and the principles by which it protects our individual rights.

It is interesting to note that the Chief Justice reduced Jefferson’s “assembly of demigods” to a pack of undirected pragmatists in an attempt to restrict the government’s authority under the Commerce Clause rather than expand it through the General Welfare clause, as he ultimately did. He rejected the Obama administration’s argument that because refusing to participate in the economy has ramifications to interstate commerce, that refusal can be regulated under the Commerce Clause. To elucidate his position, Roberts drew a distinction between academic economists who would (accurately) note that both “activity and inactivity… have measurable economic effects on commerce” and the Founding Fathers who were “practical men, dealing with the facts of political life” rather than abstract economics or philosophy. Thus, he concludes, the wording of the Constitution is clear and direct, and precludes the federal government from enacting Obamacare’s individual mandate under the Commerce Clause.

As true as the Chief Justice’s conclusion may be, his argument for it is poor, and very clearly left the door open for abuse – if it did not, the General Welfare clause would have prohibited the same regulation.

It is true: the Founding Fathers were practical men, only insofar as they were moral, principled men. They did not issue the Declaration of Independence in 1776 as some pragmatic means to separate from Great Britain only to forgo the principles therein once independence had been achieved. They stated, with no ambiguity, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Self-evident truth. All men are created equal. Unalienable rights. Those are the claims of epistemologists, metaphysicians, and moral philosophers respectively, as many of the Founders were in their own rights – the culmination of the Enlightenment and its principles in a single document.

Moreover, these are principles the Framers employed again eleven years later during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. When the Framers wrote in the Preamble that the Constitution exists to “secure the blessings of liberty,” it was man’s unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” that they were referencing.

Naturally, the Constitution does not and never did perfectly pursue those principles. The “facts of political life,” as Roberts calls them, prevented it – slave states holding the Union ransom for the price of human life is the most glaring example of this unfortunate truth. Other aspects of our government’s structure, such as our bicameral federal legislature, arose only after considerable debate over the difficulties in producing an effective government that is also accountable to its citizens and respects their rights – but this was, nonetheless, the goal. Producing shortsighted “solutions” to fleeting problems as a matter of sheer political expedience was not what produced the Constitution, nor is what produced the Bill of Rights, the all-important Civil War amendments, and Amendment XIX.

But I would not be addressing Roberts’s attack on the philosophic nature of our Founders and the government they produced if his attack itself were relatively unimportant. Reducing the Constitution to a product of pragmatism poses two very real dangers to contemporary political life.

First, it continues to obscure the principles that made the United States of America one of the most successful nations in the world. At a time when Americans desperately need to rediscover the nature of those principles, declaring them unimportant to our nation’s founding and government necessarily declares them unimportant to our nation’s success, and makes it all the more difficult to reinstitute those principles in their consistent political forms.

Secondly, the Left has been arguing for a concrete-bound, pragmatic view of the Constitution for at least a century, and continue to do so today. To use as an example a Leftist defense of one of the many recent scandals to come from the Obama administration, “The Founders can’t have possibly imagined a world with Internet communications. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to use a two-centuries old document to prevent our government from using the NSA to spy on Internet and telephone communications to stop terrorists. You have to be practical.”

As Ayn Rand famously said, “…[T]here is nothing so impractical as a so-called ‘practical’ man.”

The Constitution embodies certain political principles – principles that ought to prevent programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and others from ever existing. But when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court declares that the Constitution was only the result of certain political dilemmas of the Founding Generation, that it was created without respect to long-term philosophic principles, and that it was a matter of expedience, he necessarily permits similar political whim-worshipping today. “If the Founders were practical in writing the Constitution, why shouldn’t we be equally practical in interpreting it?”

Ultimately, Chief Justice John Roberts did interpret the Constitution as a pragmatist would – by absorbing the dominant political principles of the culture around him, those of collectivism and socialism, and applying them to his ruling. Even the man who claims to hold allegiance to no philosophic principles cannot avoid employing them. In the case of Chief Justice Roberts, he rejected Madison’s interpretation of the General Welfare clause for a loose, elastic, pragmatic interpretation that has expanded the authority of the state and eroded individual rights since the era of FDR.

Our nation’s Founders were philosophic thinkers, and it will take nothing less to reverse our nation’s current course towards ever-expanding statism.

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