Roger Pilon: The Constitution’s Purpose Is to Discipline Rulers and the Ruled

Simone Gao: Dr. Pilon believes that the Supreme Court has unconstitutionally delegated Congress legislating power to the executive branch, thus creating an ever-growing government. Does he only oppose the way the Supreme Court went about the delegation of power? Here is Dr. Pilon again.

Simone Gao: Are you opposing only the way in which they in effect changed the Constitution, or do you believe the Constitution should be treated as it is, not like a living document?

Roger Pilon: I am both opposing the way it was done, which was illegitimate. It could have been done legitimately through amending the Constitution under Article V, but I’m also opposing what was done. Because what was done was to open the floodgates to the modern leviathan. And that has brought about all manner of problems. It’s no accident that the Founders gave us limited government. They read history. They understood that democracy can be almost as dangerous, and in some cases more dangerous, than rule under the king or under some authoritarian regime because democracy has, as such, an air of legitimacy about it. But you’re also faced with the problem of the tyranny of the majority, at best. But today it’s not only majorities that tyrannize minorities, it is also special interests, far more often. Because they’re more able to work the system than transient majorities are able to do. And so when the Founders created limited government, they did so because they understood that a fundamental purpose of the Constitution is to discipline not only the rulers but the ruled, the people themselves. Today, unfortunately, we have a large part of the population that demands more goods and services from government than they’re willing to pay for. The result is that we have today a debt that exceeds 20 and a half trillion dollars. And it’s growing, and nobody knows how to stop it. And that doesn’t count the vastly greater unfunded liabilities that are held by the federal government and by state and local and municipal governments. After all, recently Detroit went bankrupt. Puerto Rico has gone bankrupt. A number of smaller cities have gone bankrupt. The state of Illinois has a bond rating just above junk status. New Jersey and Connecticut are not far behind that. And so, when you open the floodgates to, effectively, unlimited government, when you remove the discipline that a Constitution is meant to impose on both the government and the people, this is what you get. And that’s why I’m opposed, not simply to the way this was done, but to what was done as well. Because we, in effect, ignore the lessons from the Founders, and we did so and do so at our peril, as the evidence increasingly is showing.

Simone Gao: So, in your opinion, is the overarching philosophy behind this push for a more redistributive and regulatory government fundamentally in conflict with the spirit of the founding principles of this country?

Roger Pilon: Absolutely. The Founders, the founding generation, and subsequent generations, for about 150 years understood and, to a large extent, lived by these principles that were implicit and often explicit in the Constitution, in our founding documents, especially after the Civil War amendments were added. And, in fact, we have examples of people in the Congress rising from the floor to oppose a given welfare bill because, as for example, Madison said in 1794, when he was faced with such a bill: “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that passage of the Constitution that authorizes us to expand the money of the taxpayers on this particular proposal.” One hundred years after the Constitution was written, in 1887, President Cleveland vetoed a bill. And in his veto message, he said: “I can find no authorization for this expenditure under the Constitution.” Notice, they were making a point of principle. They weren’t saying, oh, it would be good for us to do this. They were saying whether or not it would be good for us to do it, we don’t have the authority to do it. Now, contrast that with Franklin Roosevelt in 1935, writing to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee as follows: “I hope you will not allow any reservations about the Constitutionality of this bill, however well founded, to stand in the way of its passage.” Contrast that with a comment by Rexford Tugwell, one of the principal architects of the New Deal programs, reflecting on his work some 30 years later, and I quote, “In order to get our programs through, we had to engage in tortured interpretations of a document that was intended to prevent them.” They knew exactly what they were doing. They were turning the Constitution on its head. It was captured—the attitude was captured, perhaps most succinctly, by Hamilton Fish Sr. early in the 20th century when he said, “What’s the Constitution among friends?” And so, yes. There was a great deal of disrespect for the Constitution. Woodrow Wilson, when he was president, saw the Constitution as a straitjacket. He thought that—he wanted to have greater power than was authorized to him under the Constitution. And so he urged reading the Constitution as allowing him much more authority than had been understood for our first 120 years, by that point in time, up till then.

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