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Gary M. Galles - Contributor

Mr. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. [go to Galles index]


Losing 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 found incompatible 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 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

copyright 2004 Gary M. Galles




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