President Clinton’s high-approval rating despite his scandal-ridden presidency is commonly explained as being a function of a sound economy. Many also attribute it to a general decline in the moral standards of society. To be sure, in peacetime our relative prosperity is the principal barometer by which the performance of presidents is measured in the short run. And, it is difficult to deny that rampant permissiveness is a major contributing factor. But reduced levels of poverty and values, by themselves, are not the only reasons for the public’s conspicuous indifference to Mr. Clinton’s criminality. The American people also suffer from a profound ignorance of the principles of ordered liberty that inspired this nation into existence.
Apparently America’s bicentennial celebration failed to reawaken the people to the uniqueness of our Constitution and the glorious principles it embodies.
An unacceptable number of Americans do not appreciate just how precious a commodity freedom is. They must assume that in the course of world history liberty has been the rule and tyranny the exception. Because they and most of us were born in freedom and have never had to make any sacrifices to maintain it, they may be incapable of conceiving of themselves or their children in slavery. Happily, the founding fathers were not so far removed from the chains of despotism and built into the founding documents safeguards for the preservation of individual liberties.
Political liberty may be a God-given right, but it has certainly not been the predominant reality in world history. It has not only been rare, but extremely difficult to achieve given the propensities of men to oppress other men. This historical fact must be emblazoned on our national soul.
Many are unaware that our own American experiment in crafting a government that would maximize personal freedoms was not without trial and error. A review of our first and failed constitution, the Articles of Confederation, is instructive in illustrating the virtual impossibility of sustaining liberty in the absence of a vigorous rule of law.
Under the Articles of Confederation the federal government had no power to tax and no power to raise an army. Congress could not force states or individuals to comply with its decisions.
So anxious were the drafters of the Articles to avoid tyranny that they overlooked the fact that freedom involves a delicate balance between the powers of government and the unfettered rights of its citizens. Just as excess governmental power stifles freedom, so does insufficient governmental power, which is anarchy, where freedom is reserved for only the most powerful. As constitutional framer Dr. Benjamin Rush observed in reflecting on the weaknesses of the Articles, “the temple of tyranny has two doors; we bolted one of them by proper restraints, but we left the other open by neglecting to guard against the effects of our own ignorance and licentiousness.”
George Washington felt that the lack of coercive power in the central government under the Articles was leading “rapidly to a crisis” and threatening the very existence of government.
Hamilton and Madison in critiquing the shortcomings of America’s first government railed that it possessed “the power to make laws, but no power to exact sanctions or penalties for disobedience of those laws.”
Indeed, the framers of our Constitution learned through their precarious predicament under the Articles that the rule of law is not some amorphous concept without real life consequences. Without it there can be no political freedom; they are mutually dependent. That is why Hamilton, in the very first of the Federalist Papers, warned that “the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interests can never be separated.” So the framers’ challenge was to establish a government with sufficient powers to protect its citizens against domestic and foreign threats while imposing ample restraints upon it to prevent it from swallowing the liberties of its citizens.
While Republicans must continue to champion smaller government, they must emphatically insist that the government be undergirded by the rule of law and sufficiently empowered to enforce it. During the impeachment proceedings they must endeavor to eradicate this perilous disconnect in the public psyche between the rule of law and our political liberties. Only when the American people fully understand the indispensability of the rule of law to our liberties will they agree that the matter before Congress greatly transcends partisan politics and that the impeachment of Bill Clinton must go forward, as unpleasant as that may be. The founding fathers understood that free societies are neither effortlessly established nor automatically sustained. Freedom carries the price not only of eternal vigilance, but of responsibility and sacrifice as well. As a nation, we cannot reasonably expect to preserve the freedom bequeathed to us if we are unwilling boldly to assume its attendant responsibilities and make the essential sacrifices it requires, not the least of which is a dogged adherence to the rule of law.