“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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
– The Declaration of Independence, dated 4th July 1776, signed 2nd August 1776.
Today, July the 4th, is (wrongly) recognised as the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. This is a momentous day for many Americans as it signals the beginning of their ancestors’ fight to free themselves from the tyranny of British rule: it led to the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, both important for many admirers of the limited state. I think after 237th years it’s worth reviewing just how well this legal governance framework this has worked out for Americans.
Following my recent defence of the European Convention on Human Rights several libertarians rightly criticised the framework as it only forces the signatory state to grant rights to the individual, whereas the US Constitution declares rights that the government cannot abrogate. For a libertarian this is a significant difference: it declares that the individual is fundamental and the state only has limited powers seceded to it, selected powers that the people allow, and no more. I’m no constitutional lawyer but this instinctively sounds like a good approach. In theory this should limit the power and scope of government to the ‘night-watchman’ state that minarchists prefer. But how does that work in practice?
In reality the US Constitution doesn’t protect any individual as it only defines how the government should work, it is the Amendments to the Constitution that provide individual rights. The first ten amendments, proposed together in 1789 and ratified in 1791, are collectively known as The Bill Of Rights. This is the decateuch for US Constitutionalists and many libertarians, these amendments defining the fundamental limits of the state. However they’re not the only amendments, the list below illustrates some that may be of interest to libertarians:
- The 11th Amendment protects states from being sued by ‘foreigners’. Ratified 1795.
- The 13th amendment abolishes slavery – so the concept of ‘life, liberty original Constitution and Bill Of Rights did not extend to all people. Ratified 1865.
- The 15th amendment stops states from denying suffrage due to race, colour or previous inservitude. But not for gender. Ratified 1870.
- The 16th amendment allows the federal government to collect income tax. Ratified 1913.
- The 18th amendment prohibits manufacture, distribution or sale of alcohol. Ratified 1919.
- The 19th amendment extends suffrage to women, finally. Ratified 1920.
- The 26th amendment extends suffrage to 18-year olds. Ratified 1971.
In 1870 Lysander Spooner wrote a pamphlet The Constitution of no Authority in which he disputed the social contract view of the constitution and argued that it was unable to stop many abuses against liberty or to prevent tyranny. After 237 years it is interesting to see the outcome of this experiment in limiting government.
First, an appropriate anecdote. In 2001 I was in Colorado on business and had been invited to a colleague’s house for dinner with his family. I dropped by the local supermarket, Safeway, to pick up a bottle of wine as a gift to my colleague for his kindness. I searched the aisle that had beer and wine coolers but couldn’t find any wine. I eventually asked the only member of staff in sight, at the pharmacy desk, where the wine was stacked. I was shocked when she said that in their state they cannot sell ‘liquor’ in a supermarket. I asked where I could buy wine, she responded: “the liquor store, next door”. this is just one example of the many weird infringements that Americans accept whilst still believing they live in the ‘land of the free’.
Some other examples of stupidity include:
- Being arrested, beaten and thrown in jail for daring to cross the road at a point other than that which the government has mandated as the correct place.
- Kinder Surprise eggs are banned from sale in the US under a 1938 law, with each egg warranting a $2,500 fine.
- It is illegal to play Poker online as gambling online is deemed illegal under the wire act. this is still being enforced now.
While these are examples of stupid laws that may concern few people, there are greater evils enacted by the US Government that should worry everyone. Three such examples are Ruby Ridge, Waco and the Kent State shootings.
If you are not aware of these events then here’s a synopsis:
There were many student protests from 1968 onwards, mostly over the Vietnam war. In May 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio the National Guard opened fire on peaceful, unarmed protesters. The guardsmen fired 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others. Other protests in that period that resulted in fatalities at the hands of police include the Orangeburg massacre and the Jackson State killings. At another University protesting students were bayoneted.
In 1992 at Ruby Ridge in Idaho the United States Marshall Service (USMS) attacked a family on their property killing the 14-year son and starting a siege. The next day Randy Weaver attempted to visit his son’s body kept in an outhouse and a sniper attempted to execute him on sight, shooting him in his back. Randy ran back to his house, badly injured, and the sniper shot again, firing through the front door blowing Vicki Weaver’s face off and killing her while she stood holding her 10-month old baby. Although the sniper was charged with manslaughter (!) the case was dismissed.
In 1993 at Waco in Texas the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attacked the property of a religious sect and were met with armed resistance; four ATF agents were killed. Following a very public 51-day siege the FBI attacked the compound using military type vehicles (including two Abrams tanks) resulting in 76 deaths including 21 children (24 of the Branch Davidians were British).
These are just a few examples of what a Government that has no limits will do to its citizens: sadly the Constitution has failed. While each event described above drew criticism and enquiries, no state official was successfully prosecuted for their actions, though in both Waco and Ruby Ridge some of the citizens targeted were subsequently imprisoned. This is the state in action – protecting its own employees, even when clear wrong-doing has happened, and prosecuting its critics (we see this frequently in the UK with the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes as recent examples). One only has to review the list of the White House Horrors during Nixon’s tenure, especially the Huston Plan (including illegal surveillance of, and detention camps for, student protestors), to realise what contempt the state apparatus has for its citizenry.
So on this anniversary let us rightly celebrate the Declaration of Independence, regarded as a great step forward for the people of North America, but let’s not forget it led to the well-intentioned Constitution which has in every measurable way failed to protect the rights of its citizens. The US Government is a ‘democratic’ dictatorship run by authoritarians from one of two ruling parties, who bleat about freedom at the ballot box, but shred individual rights when elected by the feeble-minded and hoodwinked. The US citizen should remember there is “the Right of the People to alter or to abolish” a despotic government; they alone amongst the people of the world have a legal and defined precedent to do this in their Declaration of Independence: it enables them to legally overthrow their shackles. They should peacefully and legally invoke the Declaration’s intent and petition for the winding up of the existing government structure.
I’ll leave you with a thought from Lysander Spooner:
“As long as mankind continue to pay “National Debts,” so-called,—that is, so long as they are such dupes and cowards as to pay for being cheated, plundered, enslaved, and murdered,—so long there will be enough to lend the money for those purposes; and with that money a plenty of tools, called soldiers, can be hired to keep them in subjection.”