Gary M. Galles - Contributor
Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.
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Rights To Majority Rule
Understanding the Constitution…
[Gary M. Galles] 12/14/04
Robert Byrd's requirement that every educational institution
receiving federal aid teach about the U.S. Constitution each
year on its September 17th anniversary, inserted into the massive
2005 spending bill, is ironic. One would not expect someone considered
the Senate's leading Constitutional scholar to offer something
clearly at odds with the 10th Amendment's restriction of the
federal government to its enumerated powers, especially as part
of a bill packed with provisions (e.g., 10 digits worth of pork)
blatantly inconsistent with Americans' general welfare, which
is the Constitution's rationale.
However, questions about his "solution" aside, Senator
Byrd is right about our insufficient knowledge of the Constitution.
For instance, a National Constitution Center poll found that
two-thirds of adults said it was "absolutely essential" to
have "detailed" knowledge of what is in the Constitution,
while only one in six claimed such knowledge.
Unfortunately, that means Americans know too little about our
Constitution to maintain the freedoms it was designed to protect.
Instead, our ignorance leads us to lose rights out of undue deference
to majority rule.
The Constitution is far from an endorsement
of majority rule. Our founders believed in voting to select
who should be entrusted
with the power of government, but the more important question
was: "What power will the federal government be granted?" That
is why so much of the Constitution, particularly the Bill of
Rights, is devoted to what the government is not allowed to do,
even if the majority supports it. In Jefferson's words, they
fought not for democracy, but for government "tied down
from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."
The Constitution contains many non-majority voting rules to
protect Americans against abuse by their government, ranging
from the Supreme Court's power to strike down unconstitutional
laws, regardless of how many votes they received, to presidential
veto power and the congressional super-majorities that can override
a veto. In that, it reflected our founders' antipathy toward
pure majority rule.
James Madison said "democracies have ever
been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been
with personal security or the rights of property; and have in
general been as short in their lives as they have been violent
in their deaths."
Thomas Jefferson warned that "[an] elective despotism
was not the government we fought for," and that "The
majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses
its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks
up the foundations of society."
Alexander Hamilton argued that "Real liberty
is not found in the extremes of democracy..."
Noah Webster found that "...a pure democracy...is
often the most tyrannical government on earth."
Many feel that "also protecting the rights of the minority" can
still square a belief in majority rule with our founders' opposition
to unlimited democracy. However, Americans' lack of Constitutional
knowledge means that the belief in protecting the rights of a
minority does not result in protecting them in fact.
Since Americans don't clearly understand their Constitutional
rights against government abuse, their deference to political
majorities results in those rights being steamrollered whenever
more than 50% vote to do so. And examples are plentiful. Despite
the Constitution's imposition of strictly limited and enumerated
federal powers, there is no area of our lives it does not now
reach. And with our protections eroding, majority voting controls
more and more of what our founders intended to put off-limits
to political determination.
Sadly, Americans inattention to the highest law of the land
puts our most essential rights and liberties at risk, as we can't
effectively defend what we are only vaguely aware of. Unless
we once again take them as seriously as our founders, and vigorously
defend the Constitutional safeguards that maintain them, our
system of self-government will continue to erode. However, a
populace that fails to note the irony in Senator Byrd's use of
an approach inconsistent with the principles of the Constitution,
in order to promote understanding of the Constitution, is a long
way from that goal. tOR
2004 Gary M. Galles