Ignorance or Immorality

It's hard for me to decide whether most of my fellow Americans are ignorant or immoral. Let's look at it. If Congress passed a law mandating that every American do calisthenics every morning, eat five fruits and vegetables each day, read a story to their pre-school children, and get eight hours sleep each night, the nation would be up in arms. Why? Aren't these all good ideas? Whether they are good ideas or not, whether a majority of Americans agree has absolutely nothing to do with whether Congress should pass such a law. The only issue is whether it is permissible; does the U.S. Constitution give Congress such a grant of authority?

Say Congress passed such a law, would you use the pejorative "extremist" label for those who vehemently disagreed? I doubt whether most Americans would and they'd probably have little sympathy for the congressman who said he voted for such a law in order to "promote the general welfare."

Here's my dilemma. Congress is debating President Clinton's proposed national education standards and increased federal education spending. I've read the U.S. Constitution. Rest assured that not even the word education, like calisthenics, appears in the document. The federal government has no constitutional authority to set education standards or spend money on education or even have a Department of Education. My question is why would Americans be offended if Congress impermissibly passed a law mandating that we exercise, eat fruits and veggies, read to our children and sleep eight hours and not be offended by educational mandates and expenditures that are just as impermissible?

One possible answer is Americans don't know the Constitution and think education is more important than exercise. Thus, Congress has authority to pass laws dealing with the more important areas of our lives. Another possibility is Americans have contempt for the Constitution and its limitations on Congress. They see strict constitutional obedience as an extremist plot that will prevent them from forcibly imposing their vision of the good life on others.

What about Congressmen who take an oath of office to uphold and protect the Constitution? No speculation is required. Most congressmen are lawyers. More than any other segment of our society, lawyers have the greatest contempt for constitutional principles and rule of law. But there are many congressmen who are not lawyers. Most of them believe most anything is permissible if they can summon a majority vote. There are a precious few congressmen who actually understand and respect the Constitution's limits on federal government. They don't protest impermissible acts of Congress because they fear for their political lives.

During the 104th Congress, some congressmen pointed to Fifth Amendment prohibitions against government property without due process and just compensation. They were labeled extremists by the President, environmentalists and the news media, all of whom have contempt for private property rights. For them, when it comes to a choice between honoring the sanctity of humans versus birds or rats, they side with the "endangered" birds and rats.

The Constitution represents our rules of the game, the social contract as it were. If we're to have a civilized society, there must be strict adherence to the rules of game. But the Constitution is not rigid in respect to the rules. If two-thirds of Congress, and three-quarters of the states, think calisthenics every morning, eating healthful amounts of fruits and vegetables, reading to children and getting eight hours sleep each night is so great, Article V gives us a constitutional way to make that law.

Walter E. Williams


February 25, 1997