The Dangerous Island of Dr. Ellis

It always surprises me, though it shouldn’t, how naively and simplistically a well-known, well-read historian like Joseph Ellis can take the complex, rich history of our nation and turn it into a passion play. Ellis’ editorial ‘The Era of Fettered Government Is Over.” It smacks of the absurdity of a rag like Newsweek which titled an issue with the moronic ‘We Are All Socialists Now,” pronouncement. At a time when our government is meddling and infringing most dangerously in our lives, he contends we should just accept a parental government as both inevitable and admirable. His confused communitarian leanings are most evident when reading his first paragraph. Ellis seems to believe either people are outside government or part of it when neither is indicative of the American experience.

“The Constitution enshrines ‘the people’ as the sovereign agent, with a Bill of Rights that defines a protected region where government cannot intrude, but otherwise identifies a collective interest best managed by a federal government empowered to make decisions for the society as a whole,” Ellis posits. This is his main premise in defining the role of people and the relationship between government and society. From this sordid premise, he begins to blast away at the walls which would otherwise pen a feral government. If you accept that premise, all restraints against federal power must necessarily fall away. But, is his supposition accurate?

The first part of his premise involves the power dynamic between the Constitution and the people. Ellis argues that the document empowers people as ‘sovereign agents.’ However, that is not that case at all. The people are not the agents in relation to government but exactly the opposite. He has the master/servant roles reversed. Government is the agent of the people. Government is the feral beast that is tamed and obedient to the people. That is why the Preamble begins with “We the People, in order to form a more perfect government . . .” We are the ones sanctioning the existence, for our benefit, of government. John Jay, arguing for the ratification of the Constitution declared, “[a] strong sense of value and blessings of union induced the people . . . to institute a federal government to preserve and perpetuate it.” Federalist No. 2. Our ancestors created a government to oversee preservation of union in order to protect liberties. Power flows through the people to government and not the reverse. In other words, the Constitution doesn’t give us our sovereignty; it only erects an edifice to preserve that self-sovereignty.

Furthermore, Ellis disingenuously characterizes government as being an entity that engulfs the individual and somehow we have a few ‘fenced in’ rights as provided by the Bill of Rights. This flies squarely in the face of the very idea of a written and enumerated powers document. Why in the world would these political scholars and lawyers have spent weeks in the hot, humid Pennsylvania summer to hammer out a few pages of specific provisions if they had meant to let the government do whatever it wanted? Why agonize over words and phrases if the American Experiment was not meant to be a limited and defined entity? Ellis mocks these men as morons on a fool’s errand. In spite of the fact they knew the history of societal oppression without structural safeguards, he believes our Constitution to be a ‘dead hand of the past.’ He misses the point of this labor. The Founders knew an unfettered government would crush the individual and marginalize the minority. They knew republics and democracies of the past had died and with it the individual’s freedom. Instead, Ellis blithely accepts the tyranny of the majority as a positive development.

This also splinters Ellis’ argument as to the relationship between the ‘people’ and society. Society is an amorous cultural phenomenon that creates an informal relationship within which people interact. Society is not a shared collective group with powers per se. Once again, the Preamble doesn’t ascribe ‘We as a society, in order to form a more perfect union . . .’ It declares ‘We the people.’ This wasn’t a ‘slip of the pen’ moment. These words were deliberately and laboriously chosen for effect. It suggests a group of free, independent, autonomous human beings chose to elect and create such an arrangement. Society created nothing. It was the free people of the United States who built a government chained to prevent societal hegemony.

Like all collectivists, Ellis seems to believe in the mythical ‘collective interest’ of a society. No such thing has ever, nor will ever, exist. It especially cannot exist in a free country without a shared cultural identity. Our shared identity is not racial or linguistic or relational. It is a collection of free, autonomous people who cooperate with one another but who are neither dependent nor reliant on one another. We care and share with one another as a matter of course, but not as servants of a master government. We empower the government and not the other way around. We decide our priorities. It was the Private Mind and Independent Soul these people hoped to protect and not the priorities of a subset of society.

Unfettering an institution with a monopoly on force will give unforeseen powers to societal forces to oppress the minority and the individual. Giving this entity control over our energy usage, our health, our pocketbooks, is a slap in the face to our Founders. They knew an entity as powerful as a government could empower a portion of society to use it to control and crush those out of power. That is the history of the world. They specifically fettered such a monster for a reason. They wanted their progeny to enjoy the liberty they’d fought for so expensively. Unleashing such a beast will be the end of the American experiment. We will be resigned to the boneyard of other such failed free societies.

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