What's the standard battle cry and promise of the Republican Party? We've heard it: tax cuts, federalism, and limited government. I'd really appreciate it if a Republican representative or senator tells me under which of those categories Senator John McCain's (R. Arizona) so-called tobacco bill falls. If passed, the measure would add about a dollar to a pack of cigarettes, forcing smokers to pay an estimated $516 billion more in federal taxes over a 25-year period, not to mention additional federal power to control our lives.
Some Republican congressmen don't even understand or respect the meaning, purpose and spirit of the U.S. Constitution. Then there are naivetes who think that the Constitution's "general welfare" clause covers their activities. James Madison the "father" of the Constitution warned: "With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators." The "detail of powers", to which Madison refers is the Constitution's Article I, Section 8.
There are other Republicans who fully understand the limit of powers granted Congress by the Constitution but are afraid to voice it out of fear they will be misunderstood and labeled as big tobacco supporters and anti-children. Their fear may be justified. Whether it's primary, secondary school or college, very little is taught about the Constitution's meaning and spirit. Most Americans think that Congress has constitutional authority to do anything that's "wonderful" and sanctioned by a majority. Little do we realize that our constitutional ignorance has allowed us to fall easy prey to charlatans, quacks and hustlers.
Today's Congress and White House have no more moral legitimacy than King George III and the British Parliament had in the 18th century. They should be held in the same contempt our Founders held for King George and his Parliament. Oppressive taxation by the British Parliament such as the Stamp Act and the Tea Act and regulatory oppression through the Trade and Navigation Acts energized the Founders. Leading Americans, including signers of the Declaration of Independence, like John Hancock, either engaged in smuggling or supported it to avoid oppressive taxation and regulation. Their open defiance led to Britain's Parliament passing the so-called Coercive Act (1774) and Restraining Act (1775) that led to our Founders saying they had enough - hence the Declaration of Independence.
We should have the courage of our Founders and let Congress know that we have a Constitution. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have shed their blood to defend it against foreign destruction; we should be just as willing to defend it against domestic aggression. We are far short of the point where we need to take up arms; but we have reached the point where we shouldn't sheepishly obey the illegitimate acts of Congress. "So what are you saying, Williams?" you ask. I'm saying that if a Republican Congress legislates oppressive taxes on cigarettes, we should adopt our Founder's responses to Britain's oppressive acts. You say, "Williams, smuggling is against the law." I say not every law is deserving of obedience. History shows that considerable human suffering and government oppression could have been avoided simply by citizens asking whether a law is just before they obey it. Before I would have obeyed the Fugitive Slave Act, Oriental Exclusion Act, apartheid laws, anti-miscegenation laws, and alcohol prohibition, I would have asked: Is the law moral?
Walter E. Williams
June 15, 1998
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