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Beyond the Beltway: A Founding Critique

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

The contretemps over Obamacare and the outrage in the religious community over the Administration’s forcing contraception and abortifacients down the throats of religious employers are the philosophical embodiment of the “fat guy in a little coat” scene from the film Tommy Boy. Tommy, played by Chris Farley, attempts to squeeze into his diminutive co-star David Spade’s jacket and ends up ripping the jacket wide open. Applying the analogy (which is admittedly an imperfect fit, pun intended) to our political moment, the restricting entitlements of modern liberalism clearly do not fit a nation founded upon individual liberty and freedom from government. In Tommy Boy the scene was hilarious. In Obama’s America, it is not.

Modern American Leftists, perfectly and completely embodied in Barack Obama, believe American history hinges on three axes of the 20th century: the progressive era, the New Deal era, and the radicalism of the 1960s. Each period was characterized by a squelching of individual liberty under the auspices of federal efforts to “protect” Americans from various so-called vices. Today Leftists/Progressives view themselves as phase four of this movement. Exhibit A: Hillary Clinton, who proudly branded herself a “progressive,” rather than a liberal, during the 2008 primaries.

Applied politically, this historical myopia allows the American Left to elide any constitutional limits on federal authority by over-reading those provisions empowering the federal government (the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, the Fourteenth Amendment) and disregarding those that restrict federal authority (the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment, and the 10th Amendment). Exhibit B: Nancy Pelosi, who when asked if Obamacare was constitutional, responded: “Are you serious?” The recent Supreme Court arguments show the Justices answer yes.

What all this reveals is a basic misconception of the source of American rights and privileges. Leftists like Pelosi and Obama believe all rights, freedoms, and privileges emanate from Washington, which dispenses these items to Americans like a beneficent ruler. Yet this formulation is exactly backward: America’s founding documents expressly forbid this interpretation.

America’s founding was the first time in human history that a people said their rights precede their government, and then actually formed a government based upon that proposition. Thus, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution provide that all rights are inherent in the people, belong only to them, and it is only by their consent that government exercises power. Absent that consent, government itself is a nullity.

It is impossible to overstate how important this is. If this history is accurate, and no one – not even liberals – disputes that it is, then very conception of the modern welfare state (which reverses the people v. government equation) is anathema to America’s founding and is totally illegitimate. Accordingly, to establish a Europe-like social welfare state premised upon government entitlements, as the Left and Barack Obama seek to do, they must rewrite the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Good luck.

If rights precede government, government is in no position to give them or take them away from their rightful owners. That means neither the Supreme Court, nor Barack Obama nor Congress can constrict our rights beyond what they were at the founding, unless we the people use the means provided at the founding to do so. We have not. Any other means, e.g. Obamacare, are forbidden. Also, the Court, Congress, and the president have no power to grant or deny rights inconsistent with their limited mandate to enforce those rights that we the people already possessed before government existed.

The parent-child analogy is helpful here. The child (the state) cannot usurp for itself the powers of the parent (the people) to exercise control over the parent in service of whatever demands the child comes up with. Government exists only to protect those rights we had before government, and government has no business telling us what greater or lesser rights it will afford us or deny us. This is why when the children are put in charge, the results are predictably disastrous. They use money unwisely (Solyndra), they talk to hostile strangers (Iran), and they perform the same failed routines (stimulus, unemployment benefits) because they are incapable of accountability and responsibility. In theory and practice, government-first governance doesn’t work.

The political solution is to re-orient, to the greatest extent possible, the relationship between rights-givers and rights-takers. The legal challenge to Obamacare was a good start, but much more needs to be done. The practicalities are complex, but the philosophy is not.

As Mr. Romney prepares to face off against Barack Obama, voters long to hear not just about his competency, but about his convictions regarding America’s cherished past, its present struggles, and its improved future under a Romney presidency. To that end, he would do well to internalize and then frequently articulate the following.

If rights precede government, then the people: (1) can restrict those rights that government currently exercises; (2) can refuse to fund a government that acts inconsistent with its limits and the peoples’ rights; (3) are not obligated to abide usurpations of their rights under the auspices of fairness or equality; and (4) are affirmatively obligated to remove from government those individuals and institutions that overstep the limited, enumerated powers given them. Mr. Romney’s promise this week to eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development and scale back the Department of Education are good starts in the right direction.

Come November, President Obama will ask for another four years to impose upon an inherently free people a “progressive” agenda offensive to America’s deepest values. To quote Ms. Pelosi: are you serious?

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