This piece, written by Gary M. Galles, was originally published on the Foundation for Economic Education’s website on Sunday, September 17, 2017.
Constitution Day—September 17—marked the anniversary of its 1787 signing. Students will be taught about it…but not because of its importance. It is now a mandatory topic for every educational institution receiving federal aid. However, what won’t be taught is the irony of that requirement, which originated from the man then-described as the Senate’s leading constitutional scholar, while clearly conflicting with the Constitution.
In 2004, Senator Robert Byrd (D.-WV) added this requirement to a pork-filled spending bill that was blatantly inconsistent with Americans’ general welfare. It also clearly overstepped the 10th Amendment’s restriction of the federal government to only its enumerated powers.
His “solution” aside, Byrd was correct about Americans’ inadequate constitutional knowledge. As one National Constitution Center poll concluded, only one in six of us claimed detailed knowledge of the Constitution—despite the fact that two-thirds said it was “absolutely essential” to have.
Lack of Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing
In other words, Americans know too little about our Constitution to maintain the freedoms it was designed to protect. Instead, our ignorance leads us to sacrificing rights out of undue deference to majority rule.
America’s Constitution did not endorse majority rule. Our founders did believe in voting to select who should be entrusted with the power of government, but the more important and prior question they addressed was: “What powers do the people delegate to the federal government to exercise on their behalf?” That is why so much of the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, is devoted to what the government is not allowed to do, regardless of majority sentiment. As Jefferson said, our founders fought not for democracy, but for a government “tied down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
In fact, our founders had a great distrust of majority rule. Alexander Hamilton asserted that “Real liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy.” James Madison said “democracies…have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Thomas Jefferson warned that “an elective despotism was not the government we fought for,” and that “The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society.”
That is why the Constitution contains multiple non-majority rules to protect Americans against federal abuses, such as presidential veto power and the super-majorities required to change the Constitution. Its defense is the rationale for the Supreme Court’s power to strike down unconstitutional laws, regardless of how many congressional votes they received.
“Individual rights are not subject to a public vote.”
Despite our founders’ antipathy toward pure majority rule, many today feel that our founders’ opposition to unlimited democracy can be squared with political determination of everything by adding the phrase, “also protecting the rights of the minority.” However, as Ayn Rand put it, “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by minorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).” Consequently, our lack of Constitutional knowledge means that believing in protecting the rights of minorities does not actually protect them when they are outvoted.
Since Americans don’t clearly understand their constitutional rights against government abuse, the unwise habit of deference to political majorities results in those rights being steamrollered whenever more than 50 percent vote to do so. Examples are plentiful because—despite the Constitution’s imposition of strictly limited, enumerated federal powers—there is no area it does not now reach, if not dominate. And with our protections eroding, majority voting controls more and more of what our founders thought they had made off-limits to political determination.
Sadly, as we can’t effectively defend what we are only vaguely aware of, American inattention to the highest law of the land puts our most essential rights and liberties at risk. We may think we have inalienable rights, as the Declaration of Independence asserts. But those rights are protected by the Constitution only if we know what they are and we remember that the federal government was not granted power to take them away based on any simple majority vote. Unless we once again take our rights as seriously as our founders and vigorously defend the Constitutional safeguards that maintain them—even against majority pressures—the system of self-government our founders left us will continue to erode. But when we don’t even recognize the irony of a federal mandate to promote understanding of the Constitution, especially when it is inconsistent with the Constitution, we are unprepared to do anything to effectively preserve its protections against government abuse.
–Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. His recent books include Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014) and Apostle of Peace (2013). He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.