John Adams sized up the Constitution as suitable “only for a moral and religious people; it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” To some extent, this is true of every body of law. People can change the law, after all, or rebel against it entirely. The Constitution can be altered by amendment, so even if America had remained utterly faithful to the Constitution from Adams’ time until today, it would still be possible for an immoral people to muck it up with unwise amendments. There is no way to devise an invincible system of government that would guarantee virtue beyond what the bulk of its citizens provide. At best, the system will make them think long and hard before taking foolish measures, which is one reason why amending the Constitution is hard.
The modern American citizen, however, is expected to believe that the honor and integrity of government should define its ultimate limits. The gun control debate provides many examples of this. Consider the arrogant dismissal of concerns about privacy rights, and fears of eventual gun confiscation, surrounding the push for universal background checks. Vice President Joe Biden recently derided such nervous citizens as “the black helicopter crowd,” even though their number includes the staunch liberals of the ACLU.
Concerns about national gun registration and confiscation are waved away with a promise from the political class: “We’d never do that!” Actually, I suspect a sizable number of them would very much like to do it, but let’s indulge that promise as sincere for a moment. What guarantee do we have that the next round of politicians won’t do it, or the one after that? Dana Loesch is closely following a story about supposedly sacred data on Missouri concealed-carry permit holders mysteriously finding its way into federal hands. The government’s promise to carefully steward our priceless personal data is already being broken.
The limits of government power cannot be set based on the presumed integrity and benevolence of politicians and bureaucrats. That’s a dreadful inversion of Adams’ warning about the importance of a “moral and religious people” to Constitutional self-government. We’re not supposed to gamble everything on the assumption we will be forever ruled by moral government officials, who pinky-swear their successors will never abuse the powers they assert today. On the contrary, it would be wise to consider every way a new power can be abused before granting it to the State… especially given that the core principle of “progressivism” holds that such powers can never be taken back.
We’re asked to accept numerous abuses of authority that weren’t supposed to happen, according to the political class of previous generations. Look at Social Security, which was supposed to provide accounts “owned” by citizens, funded by a lifetime of mandatory “contributions.” Today it is nothing of the kind – it’s a huge welfare program, funded by a dwindling cohort of current workers, and the political class speaks openly of making it even more redistributionist.
Loud promises were made to our great-grandparents that their Social Security numbers would never, ever be used as a form of general identification. The income tax was only supposed to affect a tiny handful of super-rich people. The same was said of the Alternative Minimum Tax. But if you don’t care to look so far back into the Twentieth Century, you might consider the much more recent example of ObamaCare, which broke all its promises in just a couple of years. (“If you like your health-care plan, you can keep your plan!”)
And yet, the political class is once again asking us to trust its discretion in the matter of gun control. The more government asserts its moral superiority, the greater its presumptions about the immorality of the populace become. We can’t be trusted to behave ourselves. A rapidly growing number of important decisions are taken from our hands. The law mandates or penalizes decisions, rather than punishing crimes. The government gathers an increasingly large body of highly searchable, cross-referenced data about its child-citizens, because they cannot be allowed to wander from its sight.
The balance of trust shifts in favor of a political and bureaucratic system that lurches ever further from the control of the people. This is a natural function of government growth. We speak often of “accountability” for politicians, but Big Government is inherently unaccountable. The notion of punishing politicians at the ballot box is a laughable fantasy when their performance is judged in so many different areas, and they have such vast resources to purchase the votes of a winning electoral coalition. We have almost no control over the regulatory agencies that elected politicians have delegated so much power to. Who are you going to vote out of office, if you don’t like the way the universal gun background check system works? Whose broken promises will you rail against, if it gives birth to a national gun registry?
Today’s promises will be forgotten as tomorrow’s citizens grow accustomed to the new boundaries of their liberty. Instead of insisting upon respect for their own judgment, and placing their faith in one another, the people will accept the judgment of the State, which is increasingly seen as the sun of morality around which an immoral people orbit. Trust is a limited resource – place yours in a remote central authority, and you’ll have less to spare for your neighbors. Those who worship Big Government already think it’s quaintly amusing that you might desire a gun to resist them. Many of them find it downright insulting. Trust them to let you know what level of dissent is currently acceptable.