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War, the Constitution, and bananas

Scott Wagner | Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Constitution is more than just a piece of paper. It is far from perfect, but it is a functional summation of the chains and locks that keep the green eyes of our would-be oppressors downcast. It is a detailed explanation of what our government may do and (as in much of the Bill of Rights) what our government may not do. It is something so precious and inviolable that without it, everything for which this country stands – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – is lost.

I will be the first to admit that the founders of this nation would never, in their wildest dreams, have imagined the world in which we live today. This fact, however, is not a justification for what the politicians in Washington have done to desecrate the Constitution.

Anyone who has attended a Notre Dame home football game can recognize the preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” It would be impossible for me to count how many times I have heard a left-winger appeal to the preamble to justify price controls, socialized medicine, really any grand social scheme imaginable. Because the Constitution is a “living document,” they claim, it must adapt to provide for today’s “general Welfare.”

Interestingly enough, the same argument is made by many “neoconservatives” to justify “American global leadership” – the Project for the New American Century’s brilliant euphemism for “war” – in bringing about their vision of a free, democratic world. The Constitution is a “living document,” they swear, and it need not be wholly respected with regards to foreign policy.

For example, they tell us, just because the Constitution requires a declaration of war, does not mean the government must always comply. Instead, Congress often abdicates their responsibility and, like they did in 2003, delegates the authority to declare war to the president. They have been doing so consistently for the last 60 years, despite the fact that it is dangerous and entirely unconstitutional. In fact, the last time America was at war was 1945; Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq are all something else. Indeed, as former Libertarian Party presidential candidate (and current Republican member of the House of Representatives) Dr. Ron Paul warned in 2002: “Transferring authority to wage war, calling it permission to use force to fight for peace … is about as close to 1984 ‘newspeak’ that we will ever get in the real world.”

You may believe James Madison to be outdated, but he was right; in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, he wrote: “The Constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.” The president does not have authority to declare war for this very reason, a reason that America has conveniently forgotten.

Articles I through III of the Constitution clearly and succinctly explain the powers of the United States’ government. Any powers “not delegated to the United States by the Constitution” nor “prohibited by it to the States” do not exist, and if you don’t believe me you can read the 10th Amendment. Such powers are reserved for the states, or for the populace. So it does not matter how “alive” you believe the Constitution to be; unless the states ratify an amendment granting Congress the power to hand out free bananas, Congress may not hand out free bananas.

But let us take it a step further: if the Constitution is a “living document,” which parts of it are “alive”?

Is it the Second Amendment? Surely, as an enlightened civilization, we no longer need the right to bear arms. Is it the Fourth Amendment? Because in the fight against terrorism, we cannot afford to obtain warrants for wiretaps and searches. Or what about the Eighth Amendment, because seriously – why can’t we torture terrorists?

What about the First Amendment? Do we need that anymore?

Here is my warning, then, to those with ears to hear it: if the Constitution is alive, its heart vibrates in tune with the party in power. When the ruling parties feel secure enough to ignore the restrictions imposed on them, something priceless and distinctly American is dead.

Our Constitution is not without flaws, but it is also not subject to the whims of anyone. The founders may not have been able to imagine today’s world with the Internet or “Dancing with the Stars,” but they could most certainly imagine a bloated centralized government that overtaxed its people, dictated its will across many oceans and made non-defensive war against whomever its leader deemed worthy.

In fact, they had just defeated one.

Scott Wagner is the president of the College Libertarians, a club that has an awesome Web site at www.nd.edu/~liberty. He can be contacted at swagner1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.