by Joseph Sobran
Enumerated Powers and the Separation of Powers
The Constitution does two things. First, it delegates certain enumerated powers to the federal government. Second, it separates those powers among the three branches. Most people understand the secondary principle of the separation of powers. But they don’t grasp the primary idea of delegated and enumerated powers.
Consider this. We have recently had a big national debate over national health care. Advocates and opponents argued long and loud over whether it could work, what was fair, how to pay for it, and so forth. But almost nobody raised the basic issue: Where does the federal government get the power to legislate in this area? The answer is: Nowhere. The Constitution lists 18 specific legislative powers of Congress, and not a one of them covers national health care.
As a matter of fact, none of the delegated powers of Congress — and delegated is always the key word — covers Social Security, or Medicaid, or Medicare, or federal aid to education, or most of what are now miscalled “civil rights,” or countless public works projects, or equally countless regulations of business, large and small, or the space program, or farm subsidies, or research grants, or subsidies to the arts and humanities, or … well, you name it, chances are it’s unconstitutional. Even the most cynical opponents of the Constitution would be dumbfounded to learn that the federal government now tells us where we can smoke. We are less free, more heavily taxed, and worse governed than our ancestors under British rule. Sometimes this government makes me wonder: Was George III really all that bad?
Let’s be clear about one thing. Constitutional and unconstitutional aren’t just simple terms of approval and disapproval. A bad law may be perfectly constitutional. A wise and humane law may be unconstitutional. But what is almost certainly bad is a constant disposition to thwart or disregard the Constitution.
It’s not just a matter of what is sometimes called the “original intent” of the authors of the Constitution. What really matters is the common, explicit, unchallenged understanding of the Constitution, on all sides, over several generations. There was no mystery about it.
The logic of the Constitution was so elegantly simple that a foreign observer could explain it to his countrymen in two sentences. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “the attributes of the federal government were carefully defined [in the Constitution], and all that was not included among them was declared to remain to the governments of the individual states. Thus the government of the states remained the rule, and that of the federal government the exception.”
The Declaration of Independence, which underlies the Constitution, holds that the rights of the people come from God, and that the powers of the government come from the people. Let me repeat that: According to the Declaration of Independence, the rights of the people come from God, and the powers of the government come from the people. Unless you grasp this basic order of things, you’ll have a hard time understanding the Constitution.
The Constitution was the instrument by which the American people granted, or delegated, certain specific powers to the federal government. Any power not delegated was withheld, or “reserved.” As we’ll see later, these principles are expressed particularly in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, two crucial but neglected provisions of the Constitution.
Let me say it yet again: The rights of the people come from God. The powers of government come from the people. The American people delegated the specific powers they wanted the federal government to have through the Constitution. And any additional powers they wanted to grant were supposed to be added by amendment.
It’s largely because we’ve forgotten these simple principles that the country is in so much trouble. The powers of the federal government have multiplied madly, with only the vaguest justifications and on the most slippery pretexts. Its chief business now is not defending our rights but taking and redistributing our wealth. It has even created its own economy, the tax economy, which is parasitical on the basic and productive voluntary economy. Even much of what passes for “national defense” is a kind of hidden entitlement program, as was illustrated when President George Bush warned some states during the 1992 campaign that Bill Clinton would destroy jobs by closing down military bases. Well, if those bases aren’t necessary for our defense, they should be closed down.