Responsibility and War Powers
by populistamerica, Sat Apr 08, 2006 at 11:23:34 AM EDT
Click Here for More Related Commentary
It is certainly no longer news that our elected representatives rarely read the laws they pass, let alone think through the possible applications and implications of those laws before casting their votes. Our elites thrive on an accumulation of power that results from the disintegration of our constitutional protections. Our discussion, of late, has focused on this shift from constitutional to arbitrary power in the executive branch; especially in relation to war powers. As a result of this disintegration, we can see that the interests of our rulers generally lie in a direction opposite to that of the will of the People. Thus, they have effectively automated our political system to resist fundamental change resulting in an endless drift towards despotism.
It must be admitted, that people, from king to president, down to the industrialist and the laborer, are constantly aiming at greater levels of power and importance. This self-evident propensity must be closely and constantly guarded against in the forms of government. As has been noted previously, the United States Constitution places restraints on Congress and the Executive branch so as not to wage war casually and without proper declaration. It provides no authority to spend money or lives to spread our political message around the world. But, it is an unfortunate truth that Presidents, Congresses, and political parties alike, no longer follow this clearly-defined law.
A good start to correcting the near-constant violations of the war powers clause by both the Congress and the Executive would be a strict adherence to the rule of law and the Constitution. This would bring an immediate halt to our ill-advised experiment in assuming the role of world policeman. We have been told that our undeclared wars throughout the years in places like Korea, Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, have been worth the countless lives lost, and the many thousands more wounded. I disagree; with great sadness for those who have suffered dearly, and with so little hope for future peace.
Such complacence regarding the rule of law would constitute a monstrous breach of trust if we supposed that the President and members of Congress had a duty to perform the role the Constitution assigned to them, or if we judged such behavior in light of the theory by which the administration of government in a democratic society is legitimized; the process by which laws are passed, and federal actions embarked upon, supposedly assures us that there is some connection and some degree of correspondence through "representation" and elected rulers," between what the government does and what "the People" actually think or at least want! If that process becomes a mockery, then it becomes dubious to claim that the actions of government represent the "will of the people" or even the "will of the majority." In such a situation, government is no longer "self-government" and becomes, instead, fiat imposed upon its subjects. And so it is inappropriate to dwell excessively on how war is declared, unless we begin questioning whether such acts can ever have any legitimate claim upon us or be considered as anything other than the exercise of arbitrary, unaccountable power.
My intention, here, is to examine the two systemic conditions that make consistent violations of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution possible, rational, and even inevitable. First, government "officials" are not truly responsible for the laws that they pass, or for the consequences of those laws. The Constitution itself provides that the members of Congress "shall in all cases, except treason, felony, and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses..." Thus, legislators cannot be held accountable for any laws they pass or for the consequences of their laws. Likewise, the President can only be removed from office "on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." And, since impeachments are handled by the Congress, the entire process has been reduced to little more than a political process. Thus, the sole remedy of the electorate is to vote their rulers out of office.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to think of any other situation in which a person is given such great power over the lives, and liberty of others where, no matter how much harm they commit, the worst and only thing that can happen to them is a loss of their job. Not getting reelected may mean a lot to politicians, but it obviously has not been enough to restrain them from violating the Constitution.
It is important to realize just how unlikely a possibility even this is. Getting fired for violating the Constitution assumes that voters will always understand the cause and effect connection between the actions of their leaders and their subsequent harms. But first, elections are usually much more about the future than the past. Second, the government follows the rule that you cannot be blamed for a law you didn't write, and the President cannot be blamed for Congressional violations of the Constitution; such as an illegal transfer of the power to declare war. Voters have little to no incentive to care or notice. They have no reason to care unless and until adverse effects reach them directly. As long as wars continue destroy other people's lives, ignorance is bliss!
But this is not all. A second flawed condition of the Constitution founds the entire enterprise of government, top to bottom, on irresponsibility and unaccountability. Not only are politicians not responsible for the consequences their actions, but the voters themselves are also not responsible for them, because they are not responsible for the actions of their representatives.
Ask yourself whether you would trust, or willingly pay for the services of, a doctor, attorney, or car manufacturer if they were nearly immune from liability for any potential injury. Ask whether you would stand for any company telling you the kind of lies and distortions that politicians routinely spew at us about federal laws and programs. Under securities laws, corporations are not only prohibited from lying to you about their financial condition and activities, but they are also required to not omit to tell you anything else, if such omissions would cause what they do tell you to be misleading. In our current system of government, no such anti-fraud or full-disclosure laws apply to political speech!
Furthermore, outside of government, a principal is responsible for the actions of their agent. If their agent harms people or property in the performance of their duties for the principal, then the principal is liable. If no one assumes responsibility for the acts of a governmental "representative," the representative is not really an agent of anyone, and therefore, as an agent of no one, is simply acting on their own authority; for which they are accountable and responsible to no one.
Thus, it is pure nonsense to assert that the government is the "servant" or "agent" of the People, or that members of Congress are "representative" of the People. While in office, our "representatives" brandish an absolute and irresponsible power. The people over whom such control is exercised are, in reality, little more than slaves. Just because a People is allowed to chose a new master every few years does not mean that they are not still slaves! What makes them slaves is the fact that their lives are now, and will always be, in the hands of people whose power over them will forever be unlimited and irresponsible!
Such reflections make plain the extent to which the activities that we consider to make up our "government" can advance only because those administering the government are not responsible for the consequences of their acts; neither the legislators who make the laws nor the people who want the laws. Not only is this authority over other people irresponsible, but such control is possible only because it lacks responsibility.
It is the lack of responsibility in our nation's war-making power which represents what may be the greatest error on the part of the founding fathers; and we are still paying for it today. The United States Constitution does not state what wars are proper and what wars are not. It does not control the incentives of industries that profit from war. It does not provide consequences for any violations of the powers of war. The paper-delineated divisions of war-making powers between Congress and the Executive, as well as regular elections in Congress, have proven to be no defense against disastrous war-making! It is hard to imagine any revised form of self-government that could produce worse results than the blank check written to our rulers that we have now!
Irresponsibility and unaccountability are the essence of government, in the form of the state. Not too many people actually take time to consider the implications and consequences of this. Instead, people call for minor reforms to correct this or that problem, but none of these cosmetic reforms go to the root of the problem; they do not alter the fundamental and systemic conditions that make the state what it is today. How, then, can our problems ever be resolved?
Who, then, will "deter" our leaders from the normal temptations of power; including violations of the Constitution and other high-risk behaviors that lead to war? At the present time, we must rely, I suppose, on the hoped-for goodness and wisdom of politicians and their cabals of unelected bureaucrats. What a sad state of affairs we find ourselves in when our liberty and prosperity is left in the hands of people such as these!
In general, people don't wake up in the morning with the desire to drop bombs on other people in foreign countries that they do not know, have never injured them in any way, and have never threatened them or their family. This desire is always government-induced and government-sponsored. When it comes to mass murder around the world, the state is second to none.
Patrick Henry put the general feelings of the People best when he sarcastically stated, "But we are told that we need not fear; because those in power, being our representatives, will not abuse the powers we put in their hands." Henry went even further by saying that tyranny was created by rulers and not by the "licentiousness of the people." Thus, it was quite clear at the time of our nation's founding, and possibly even more so today, that the inherent rights of the people, including the powers of war, need to be guaranteed, even if the government has not been given explicit authority to violate them.
The idea that a government is legitimate only if it has the consent of the governed is a valid theory for liberty, because government under this doctrine is a contract freely agreed to by all participating individuals who are also free to pull out of the agreement at will. Some object to such ideas of self-government because there are "too many irresponsible people" in the world; people who will cause great troubles if the government doesn't hold them back. These advocates of an all-powerful state say that we must have big government because some people won't act decently towards others, or that some people aren't smart enough to take care of themselves properly. This effort to govern morality or ethics is based entirely on the assumption that there are immoral people whom the government must control; and that those in government will always be moral and ethical people.
Yes, it is true that there will always be plenty of people who won't act responsibly. There will always be people who have no regard for the consequences of their own acts, or who appear to be totally incapable of acting justly or wisely. But, we already have a $2 trillion federal government, and for decades, our nation has consistently engaged in illegal wars; resulting in the deaths of millions! So, why is it that after amassing such great power and taking massive sums of our money, the government hasn't already protected us from irresponsibility? The answer, noted above, is simple; neither our leaders, nor the People themselves, are truly responsible for actions of the federal government.
Were legislators and those who elect them to have responsibility for their actions, they would no doubt become extremely interested in what the government does, as well as its effects. Very likely, the heated passion many have felt for launching foreign wars would soon chill.
"If the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared, nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game, decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war. Among the latter would be: having to fight, having to pay the costs of war from their own resources, having painfully to repair the devastation war leaves behind, and, to fill up the measure of evils, load themselves with a heavy national debt that would embitter peace itself and that can never be liquidated on account of constant wars in the future."
- Immanuel Kant
It was in the fifth number of these papers that we discussed the hoped-for progression to self-government that Thomas Jefferson often wrote about, but being a topic of such great importance, we must examine this further. Consider the following statements:
"The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of the consent of the People. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority."
- Alexander Hamilton
"We are free today substantially, but the day will come when our Republic will be an impossibility. It will be an impossibility because wealth will be concentrated in the hands of a few. A Republic cannot stand upon bayonets, and when the day comes, when the wealth of the nation will be in the hands of a few, then we must reply upon the wisdom of the best elements in the country to readjust the laws of the nation to the changed conditions."
- James Madison
The question, therefore, must be, does the consent of the governed actually exist in any state? The answer to this would have to be a resounding and obvious "no," because every state on earth coerces its people. Far from ending "war of all against all", government institutionalizes it; it makes war a bona fide business.
By now, it should be clear, even to the most casual observer, that a great deal of change will be required to end violations of the war powers clause, and build a proper system of responsibility in the administration of our government. Our opponents, though, tell us that America must have a moral revival before we can have greater freedom; that people must learn how to be responsibility before they can be free to govern themselves. But, this puts the proverbial "cart before the horse." If we wait on government to make people responsible, it will never happen.
Moving forward, our essential query must then be this; will not the continued exercise of arbitrary war powers without true responsibility lead us either to the establishment of a vile and arbitrary aristocracy, or monarchy? If we are not open to receiving a king, let us call another convention to revise the Constitution, and form it anew on the principles of freedom and responsibility; but by no means, under pretence, of a republic, to lay the foundation for a military government, which is the worst of all tyrannies.
What exact form our government should take, I do not yet know, and suppose that it should be left to the will of the People. But, I believe the starting point is quite simple. To ensure a proper administration of government, responsibility and self-rule is a must. How do we create such a situation? We must ensure that the People are free!
Only through freedom will people ever have an incentive to be good. People must have the freedom to make their own decisions and to face the consequences of them. Only when we are free to endure the consequences of our own actions, will we, as a People, ever truly care about them, and work to learn from our mistakes. We don't need a moral revival, and we don't need politicians making all of our decisions for us. The only way to stop the evils we now face is to live free!
I realize that I have somewhat left the topic previously at hand, but felt it was necessary to start discussing the need for responsibility in government; especially in relation to war. Responsibility in all aspects of our government must be examined, yet, a great deal more, but that will be best left for future papers. In my next paper, on April 20, 2006, I will return to our examination of the powers entrusted to the executive branch. But, before leaving you now, I hope you will take pause to consider the statement below, from that great friend to liberty, Thomas Paine:
"Governments, so far from being always the cause or means of order, are often the destruction of it."
In the spirit of liberty and prosperity,
This essay is the 26th edition of the series, The Populist Papers. Written anonymously to promote discussion of the principles alone, these essays attempt to both explain the complexities of government, and determine the proper place of a federal government based on the inherent rights of all people. Feedback is welcome at:firstname.lastname@example.org