Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

24 September, 2010

The Rule of Law vs. The Rule of Men

By Aaron
24 September, 2010

The United States, uniquely, was founded upon a distrust of government power, on the belief that humans are born with complete freedom and surrender only discrete portions of this liberty in order to live in a civilized society. And this suspicion of concentrated power has proven wise: after all, most humans are just tyrants-in-waiting. Hell, put me in power and I'd probably run roughshod over your civil liberties just to outlaw gum chewing and the use of "LOL." There is, in short, no reason to simply trust that politicians and bureaucrats will always do the right thing. This is why we have rules - beginning with the Constitution - that constrain government power and prevent it from becoming arbitrary and abusive.

A constitution, however, is merely a piece of paper - in the case of the U.S. Constitution, an old, frail piece of paper. More important than the paper itself, then, is the continual willingness of a country's citizens to defend the ideas written on it. Recently, however, several writers have lamented Americans' obsession with the Constitution, seemingly perplexed at why Americans would want checks on the power of their government. To take two examples:

"This fatuous infatuation with the Constitution, particularly the 10th Amendment, is clearly the work of witches, wiccans and wackos," writes Richard Cohen in The Washington Post.

And, at The Economist: "There is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshippers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century."

Alright, then, if the Constitution is obsolete, by what set of rules would these fellows have the government operate? I'm all ears: suggest away. But before we just toss the Constitution aside, Don Boudreaux has some questions:

...if government officials and the courts are free to choose which words of the Constitution to “adhere to” and which to ignore, what meaning does the Constitution really possess? And why did the Founding Fathers struggle so hard during the long, hot summer of 1787 over the precise wording of the Constitution? Why didn’t they – to ensure that they would win the respect of future generations of Very Smart Persons – simply draft a document that reads “Government may do whatever it judges to be best for The People” and leave it at that?

Granted, the American Founding Fathers were a flawed group of fellows: they owned slaves, thought women were daft, and didn't trust the common man to keep his wits about him. Fortunately, Madison, Jefferson, et al. thought to include Article V, which provides for a process by which the Constitution may, when absolutely necessary, be modified. And despite its imperfections, the Constitution - or, rather, adherence to its principles - has allowed one of the more cantakerous groups of people in human history to achieve unprecedented peace and prosperity.

This being a holiday week in South Korea, I've had a chance to take in a couple movies, the best of which was Mugabe and the White African. This documentary is an account of one white Zimbabwean farmer's struggle to keep his farm even as the government of Robert Mugabe uses violence to confiscate the land owned by white farmers. Mugabe justifies this policy by claiming that the land belongs to the black peasants, though in fact the land is generally given to the political cronies who keep Mugabe's Zanu-PF party in power. The film's lasting impression of Zimbabwe - one supported by countless other sources - is of a country ruled, not by law, but by the whims of one power-hungry man who couldn't care less if his policies destroy the economy and the lives of the Zimbabwean people.

The film, in short, is a painful example of what can happen when government power goes unchecked. While I'm not worried about America becoming Zimbabwe tomorrow, the film does show why these checks on state power are necessary, and why citizens must constantly fight to enforce them.