Throughout history, privilege belonged to the most powerful. Kings, barons and lords controlled property, keeping wealth in the hands of a few. Poverty was widespread and almost all were subjects to someone else. But 225 years ago this coming Monday, a group of political entrepreneurs charted a different course.
These revolutionaries proclaimed that all are fundamentally equal and equally endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They had the novel idea that government exists to secure God-given rights, and that it derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.
During four months in 1787, they wrote a constitution for the United States. By design it limited the power of government under the rule of law, created a vigorous framework that expanded economic opportunity, protected national independence and secured liberty and justice for all.
Since Americans are equal, self-governing citizens and the United States government is limited, we have the liberty and opportunity to live our lives, control our fate, and pursue our happiness — and the American Dream.
For the past 100 years, though, liberals have been busy building a different dream: that a better society could be engineered by government. Today, the federal government has acquired an all but unquestioned dominance over virtually every area of American life. It acts without constitutional limits and increasingly regulates our most basic activities, from how much water is in our toilets to what kind of light bulbs we can buy.
So while we face many challenges, the most difficult task ahead — and the most important — is to restore constitutional limits on government.
The rise of unlimited government is most familiar and most prominent in the form of judicial activism. The Founders called the judiciary the “least dangerous branch,” but progressive judges have usurped the functions of the other two branches and transformed the courts into policymaking bodies with wide-ranging power. We need judges who take the Constitution seriously and follow it faithfully.
For its part, Congress has long legislated without regard to limits on its powers. As a result, decisions which were previously the constitutional responsibility of elected legislators are delegated to executive branch administrators. Their rules have the full force and effect of laws passed by Congress. Indeed, Congress is increasingly an administrative body overseeing a vast array of bureaucratic policymakers and rule-making bodies. Congress must reassert its legislative authority, stop delegating to bureaucrats and take responsibility for all the laws (and regulations) that govern us.
The president has unique and powerful responsibilities in our constitutional system as chief executive officer, head of state and commander in chief. But the idea that the president, who is charged with the execution of the laws, need not wait for the lawmaking branch to make, amend or abolish laws but can, instead, act unilaterally to impose his policy preferences on the people is toxic to the rule of law. It violates the spirit — and potentially the letter — of the Constitution’s separation of the legislative and executive powers of Congress and the president.
Relimiting the modern administrative welfare state will be extremely difficult. No single judicial decision, presidential order or comprehensive piece of legislation can restore constitutional government. We must think strategically to pursue a realistic path that measurably reintroduces constitutional limits by focusing government on its primary obligations, restore its responsibility and democratic accountability and correct its worst excesses.
Nevertheless, the objective must be crystal clear: restore limits on an out-of-control, unrestrained government. In the choices ahead we have the opportunity to rededicate this country to the Constitution and to the universal principles of liberty at its core.
Americans may have lost faith in government, but not in America, its enduring principles or its unlimited promises. And so as we approach Constitution Day, let us commit ourselves to doing the hard work of restoring constitutional self-government, and so preserving the American Dream for all.
• Matthew Spalding is vice president for American studies at the Heritage Foundation and director of its B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
First appeared in The Washington Times.