On Monday, President Obama used his Second Inaugural Address to ground progressive values in the U.S. Constitution. The next day, NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre accused President Obama of trampling the Constitution. What are “We the People?” (More)

We the People, Part I: What Are “We?”

This week Morning Feature explores three different views of the U.S. Constitution, through the lens of the Preamble’s first three words: “We the People.” Today we consider libertarian views and the question what are “We?” Tomorrow we’ll look at conservative views and the question who are “We?” Saturday we’ll conclude with progressive views and the question why are “We?”

“As ‘absolutist’ as the Founding Fathers”

In his Second Inaugural Address, President Obama presented a progressive vision that cast each generation of Americans as temporary stewards of our Constitution, working together to solve the problems of our time. He noted that we cannot hope to resolve – for all time – the precise roles and methods of government, and added: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”

That passage made no reference to any party or interest group, yet NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre took it as a personal insult:

Obama wants to turn the idea of absolutism into a dirty word – just another word for extremism. […] Mr. President, you might think calling us absolutists is a clever way of name-calling without using names. But if that is absolutist, then we are as absolutist as our Founding Fathers and the framers of our United States Constitution. And we are proud of it.

While LaPierre is not mentioned as a mainstream libertarian, his anti-government rants are eerily similar to radical libertarianism as explained by Loyola University law professor Walter Bloch. Both hinge on what is, for progressives, a very different view of “We the People.”

“A predatory gang”

That is how radical libertarians view government, as Bloch explains:

In the radical [libertarian] world-view, the government is nothing like a doddering old uncle who is well-intended but somehow accident-prone. In sharp contrast, the state is a predatory gang. In earlier days, it attacked peaceful villages, engaged in theft, murder and rapine, and then stole back to its highland hangout. With increasing sophistication, it gave up its hit and run tactics. The next time it attacked the peaceful settlement, it stayed there, taking on the role of the mayor and the town council. The iron fist was still there, but now it became wrapped in the velvet glove of democracy. And along the way, this band of thieves bought out the academic and religious classes, paying them to weave apologetics about its wise and benevolent rule.

Now consider Wayne LaPierre’s critique of our government as delivered in his 2011 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference:

Their laws don’t work, their lies don’t ring true … Government has failed us with our money and our financial institutions. It has failed in running our post offices and trains. It has failed in enforcing our immigration laws, our drug laws, and our laws against violent criminals with guns. Heck, they can barely get the snow plowed … By its lies and laws and lack of enforcement, government policies are getting us killed and imprisoning us in a society of terrifying violence.

“The voluntary cooperation of private individuals”

MSNBC’s Ed Show blogger Ned Resnikoff noted the overlap of libertarianism and the NRA in his column on President Obama’s gun safety press conference:

The president was defending his decision to further restrict what, in political philosophy lingo, is called a negative liberty. Negative liberties are freedom from interference: They define your liberty by what other people are not allowed to do to you. So for example, if you believe that the right to bear arms is a basic negative right, you believe that nobody is allowed to prevent you from possessing firearms.

The libertarian right believes that the only liberties are negative liberties. They would argue that positive liberties – for example, the right to housing or to health care – do not exist, and the state as a whole is under no obligation to do anything but protect its citizens’ negative liberties. If you are sick, poor, hungry, or otherwise at risk, the state is not responsible for improving your situation. In fact, by trying to do so, the state might inadvertently infringe on the negative liberties of others, such as by raising their taxes and violating their negative right to their own hard-earned money.

In radical libertarianism, as Bloch argues, “All interaction is to take place on a voluntary basis.” Self-styled individualist and Ayn Rand follower Robert Tracinski amplified that in his criticism of President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address:

This is the president’s favorite false alternative: either we do things “alone,” or government does them for us “collectively.” What this world view leaves out, of course, is the voluntary cooperation of private individuals, particularly their cooperation in the free market. Which is to say that he excludes from his world view the actual majority of human activity.

But this is the basic false alternative of every Obama speech, and it is the flimsy intellectual foundation of his entire presidency. Individualism and the free market always mean doing everything “alone,” and the only alternative, the only way of doing things “together,” is a giant government program.

And in that hyper-individualistic worldview, we can make sense of both LaPierre’s declaration that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” and Alex Jones’ denunciation of Obamacare as “monstrous and tyrannical.” Your neighbors’ well-being is only your responsibility if you choose to accept it, and if your neighbors decline to help in your time of need … well … you’re on your own.

The individualistic “We”

In radical libertarianism, “We the People” are individuals. We may choose to form or join private organizations – businesses, churches, charities, and the like – but we can leave them anytime we wish. And those in such organizations can admit or reject us, as they wish. As Bloch explains:

This may sound unobjectionable to all men of good will, but if followed, fully, a large part of what now passes for legitimate law would have to be repealed. For example, discrimination of whatever kind or variety would be allowed, since refusing to deal with people on the basis of their sex, or race or national origin does not constitute a physical attack on them, the only thing proscribed by libertarian law. Thus, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would have to be eliminated. Similarly, virtually all of labor law would fall by the wayside, as most of it is predicated upon forcing the employer to deal fairly with unionized workers. But suppose he does not wish to deal with them at all? That is part and parcel of his right of free association, under the libertarian legal code.

He later divides government activities into “those things that are intrinsically evil, and those that would occur even in a free society, but are improperly taken over by the bureaucrats.” In the former category he lists prosecuting and jailing people for prostitution, drug sales, paying below-minimum wages, or charging more than allowed by rent control laws. In the latter he lists “the provisions of roads, libraries, schools, museums, post office, welfare (private charity), health, hospitals, etc.”

The constitutional “We”

We could debate the merits of providing such services through government or through private enterprise, but we can’t debate whether our federal and state governments have the constitutional authority to provide them. Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress to tax and spend for the general welfare, to regulate commerce among the states, and to establish a post office and post roads. Every state’s constitution authorizes its legislature to provide public schools, and the Tenth Amendment authorizes that through the states’ inherent police powers, that is “to establish and enforce laws protecting the welfare, safety, and health of the public.”

The Framers did not view “We the People” exclusively as individuals, as the Preamble makes clear:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Whatever those words might mean, they plainly do not mean “you’re on your own.” Simply, the Framers did not establish or envision a society based on radical libertarianism. The Constitution was not written by Ayn Rand … or for John Galt.


Happy Thursday!