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America's Greatest Strength is Her Greatest Flaw

The Constitution is supposed to prevent tyranny, but has no fixed standard to guard against it.

by James Leroy Wilson
May 26, 2005

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America's Greatest Strength is Her Greatest Flaw

One great paradox in the universe is how one's greatest strengths is also one's biggest flaws. A risk-taker's advantage is that he takes risks; his greatest problem is that he takes risks. The kind gentleman's problem is that he's too nice. Quarterback Brett Favre's daring and arm strength single-handedly wins several games for the Green Bay Packers year after year, and also single-handedly loses some. Shaquille O'Neal is always the greatest asset on whatever team he plays on, but in close games his poor free throw shooting can land his team in trouble. We often want little to do with a stubborn man, but when he's right there's no greater ally.

(A few years ago I heard the writer Calvin Trillin mention his low opinion Rudy Giuliani on public radio. Trillin did, however, admit that he admired Giuliani's leadership during 9-11, but "that just goes to show that sometimes a paranoid control freak is just what the occasion calls for.")

America's greatest strength is supposed to be her republican Constitution and her free and democratic political institutions. The Constitution is said to preserve our freedom. And there is much to be said for this. Socially and economically, America has long been among the freest in the world, if not the freest. Even when other countries were as free or more free as a matter of custom and policy, they didn't have the checks and balances among the three branches of the federal government, or the federal balance between state and national sovereignty. Also, the abolition of nobility put most Americans on a level of social equality, with greater social freedom, than had been seen elsewhere in world history.

But there is a flaw. If those freedoms are infringed upon, if the Constitution is to be ignored, if the federal-state balance is obliterated, and Congress becomes just a rubber stamp for the President, how will we know? When will the line be crossed from free republic to imperial dictatorship? Has it been crossed already? In many ways, I think it has. What remains of the Constitution are only the formal institutional structures and procedures, such as length of terms of office, and elections. Any limits on the powers of the federal government, including the Bill of Rights, have effectively disappeared.

In other words, the Constitution might never be officially repealed or replaced, yet the USA can become, and is well on its way toward becomng, a corrupt totalitarian state. There is not a "regime change" as the result of a single act, but rather a "regime changing" through large and small intrusions on our liberty over time.

That is one solid argument for monarchy. Even though my mind and heart have a "live and let live" ethic that favors anarchy, even in an ideal sense I'd probably rather have a king with an established line of succession. Especially if the King did virtually nothing and had little or no power. I'd want one solely to prevent him from being deposed. Which is to say, if he was deposed, we would know that we have a usurpation, someone trying to grab power over the rest of us illegitimately. And then we would have recourse.

That isn't possible when most of our politicians believe that the Constitution is a "living document" that means whatever they want it to mean. It isn't possible when Congressmen claim that the idea of Congress declaring war, instead of "authorizing" the President to start one, is a Constitutional anachronism. It isn't possible when the Senate can vote 100-0 to impose a national ID card, or internal passport, on the American people.

Perhaps America does not need a King; I certainly doubt that she wants one. But what our country lacks is a sense of permanence. The government, because it claims to act on behalf of "the people," may still be somewhat checked through elections, but history and tradition do not restrain us. The Constitution is not a person, and the destiny of the nation is not the destiny of a royal family. The Constitution may be our greatest strength, but it is our greatest flaw. Because it is always in the hands of politicians thinking in the short term, and of judges looking to leave their mark on history, it is subject to all forms of neglect and abuse. Unlike when a King is murdered and the murderer takes over the throne, we do not have any fixed or absolute standard of when the Constitution has been tossed aside. The politicians and judges will never agree on when that line is crossed, or agree that the line can ever be crossed. They always believe that whatever it is they want, the Constitution lets them have it.

And that is scary. Only each person's individual judgment will be left to decide if and when the federal government has gone too far. One citizen's line might be the national ID card, for another it might be drafting girls into the military, for yet another it might be a gun law or another unconstitutional war. But there will be a time, sooner or later, when a few people will decide that armed resistance to the federal government is their only just and viable recourse. They will be called nuts and terrorists. Meanwhile, the majority will likely go along, believing that their ability to elect politicians every couple of years is proof that they are free.

Comments (2)

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Everett from Chetek, WI writes:
May 26, 2005
This is one of the best pieces yet from Independent Country, but also one of the scariest.

Armed resistance against the prevailing authority (also known as insurrection and treason) is conceivable if the authority itself is is persistent in the infliction of random violence. But it is counter-productive to the forming of a healthy society. Those who take the sword legitimize it and open themselves to perishing by the sword.

Our love for the United States distorts our popular history. The United States is free because of its Revolution, but Canada is just as free without one. By setting a horrible example in the Revolution of war as social policy, the United States sets us up for the Civil War and all the disastrous foreign policies that followed. The biggest and meanest kid on the block is not the most free. He is trapped by his reputation and by the fights he is goaded into by smaller, cleverer, and meaner kids who have mastered the diplomacy of Let's you and him fight.

Douglas Young from Frisco, Texas writes:
July 29, 2005
This is one of the best pieces I have read in a long time. I do not know the extent to which it has been circulated but I can say unequivocally that more people need to read this piece. Excellent.

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