Strict enumeration of powers and limited government

Lately I’ve been bumping into a lot of hardcore libertarians who disdain the US Constitution as just another apology for statism. In the context of US politics, where fidelity to the Constitution is a hallmark of the Ron Paul Revolution and the Tea Party movement, this attitude seems bizarre. Most of these types seem to be anarcho-capitalists anyway, i.e. they don’t believe in any state at all, not even a highly limited one that would be prepared to defend property rights, right to liberty and freedom from coercion and the other assorted “natural rights”. But not all of them identify as such. Sometimes they cite the anti-Federalists, who believed the Constitution gave the federal government too much power. For a strong believer in “states’ rights”, this attitude could make sense, but for a serious libertarian, not so much, since the anti-Federalists were not proto-libertarians, but simply wanted to give more powers to the states. As US history has shown, even where federal powers have been highly curtailed, state powers have been extensive, denying people all sorts of liberties. Weak federal government is not a recipe for a libertarian society.

Yet I believe in a weak federal government, even though I also believe in libertarianism as a general principle. I would prefer all levels of government to respect natural rights and individual liberties, but I prefer these issues to be resolved locally, rather than giving federal authority the power to override lower levels of government in the name of “freedom”. The revolution must be bottom-up, not top-down.

One thing I’m really coming to admire about the original constitution is the explicit enumeration of federal powers in article 1, section 8. Dogmatic libertarians may quibble over the powers given to Congress in that section, e.g. Congress has the power to establish a post office and post roads, while many distinguished non-anarchist libertarians, like Murray Rothbard, have argued for the complete privatization of both roads and the postal service. But the point is that, whatever your views on the theory of government and the kinds of powers a government should have, the strict enumeration of powers in the constitution forced a certain restraint on all parties. Whether you liked it or not, the Constitution authorized Congress to establish a post office, but not to establish a national education or healthcare system, for example. This forces politicians to work these issues out at a local level, which in my view is always a better thing, better than trying to force a single ideological vision on the entire nation.

I suppose one could be a strict constructionist about the constitution, while also adhering to Austrian economic principles and other libertarian ideas. The fact that the constitution authorizes a federal post office does not require Congress to establish such an office. But I like that the constitution, as originally framed, only allows discretion in one direction, i.e. in the direction of less government.

Now, if only we could get Congress to just limit itself to its constitutional limits. How did they end up expanding their powers so far beyond the original constitutional vision? That’s the subject for a later post.


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