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An important lesson: The Constitution, rules and games

October 14, 2022

The following is a presentation by Dr. Glenn Moots that is part of Northwood University’s online course, ‘Philosophy of Free Enterprise,’ that is free and open to the public.

Imagine that you sit down to play a board game, like Monopoly. You start playing, and someone says “Monopoly is old, so I don’t like the rules. I say we subsidize house and hotel building, cancel rent, say the car’s a dog, and no one goes to jail.”

You say, “That sounds like what I saw on the news. But I thought we were playing monopoly, and I don’t see how we can have a game without rules?”

People like to ignore or change the rules — especially if they’re losing. And if you don’t know the rules, and preserve the rules, you’ll probably get taken advantage of.

But even if you can successfully break the rules, that can turn out much worse than you expect.

In an old Calvin and Hobbes comic, Calvin and Hobbes play a game where they make up the rules as they go. It’s called Calvinball.

When the rules don’t go his way, he says “That’s not fair!”

In the last frame, he says, “This game lends itself to certain abuses.”

Rules are there for a reason. And even when we think we can break them to our advantage, we find out that what we’ve really done is invite more problems.

Of course, politics is not a game, but it has rules too (those rules are in the Constitution). And when those rules are ignored, all kinds of abuses result.

In a separate lecture about the Bill of Rights, I emphasized the importance of clearly spelling out what the government may not do, especially the federal government.

But in the Constitution, we find some essential rules dictating what the state and federal governments may do.

These rules reflect wisdom going back to the very beginning of political life – whether we start at the ancient Near East, or with the Greeks and Romans, we discover longstanding truths.

First, not everyone should hold office

In our Constitution, the Founders insisted on two simple requirements:

According to Articles 1 and 2, office holders have to be citizens, and have to meet a minimum age requirement.

Not all cultures and countries share the same tradition of liberty and self-government, so until you commit to that — the ideas upon which America was founded — you don’t get to wield political authority.

The age tells us that leadership requires maturity. Maturity prevents being impetuous or selfish.

Second, people are too apt to fix problems with laws

At the federal level at least, laws have to be approved by two legislative bodies, each a different composition, representation, and term of office. Courts also play a role in enforcing or even thwarting those laws.

This emphasizes that we should be slow to make laws, certainly at the federal level, and only when it is absolutely necessary.

“Gridlock” is the solution, not the problem

Third, governments have an insatiable appetite for taxes, and people like to use taxes to their advantage

The Federal Government was supposed to live off of only two sources of revenue: a revenue tariff on imports and a tax apportioned among the states based on population – in other words, a tax on all incoming goods, and a head tax.

There was no Income Tax. That required a constitutional amendment.

Taxes, duties, and imposts were to be “uniform.” There was no income tax, sales tax, wealth tax, capital gains tax, estate tax, taxes on particular products, etc. There were no progressive taxes – taxes targeting rich people. No regressive taxes – taxes targeting poor people.

This not only ideally kept the government’s power limited, it kept taxes from being used by one group against another.

Government was, in other words, to treat people equally when it came to taxes.

Fourth, centralized power should be limited to a very small and necessary list of tasks

Not only does Article I, Section 8 enumerate the powers of Congress, the Tenth Amendment prohibits it from going beyond those powers.

With the exception of matters of diplomacy, including warfare, there is almost nothing in today’s federal budget that can be considered “constitutional” if compared against the list of 18 items in Article 1, Section 8. This includes things like some roads to carry the mail or granting patents.

So only does Congress have a limited number of prescribed powers, it also has a list of proscribed or prohibited powers in Article 1, Section 9. This is to explicitly prevent Congress from assuming power it should not have.

Fifth, power works best when it is decentralized

The only limits placed on the states, which is where the Founders wanted most of government activity to happen, are in Article 1, Section 10 and were intended only to maintain unity among the states.

For example, the Constitution created a free trade zone among the states.

America is actually a federal union of states. The Founders disagreed about the federal government, but they all agreed that it must have enough power to do those things that the states could not or should not do for themselves.

America is not a mere union of people. Imagine trying to govern a diverse group of over 300 million people through one organization.

The significance of the states, especially as a place where different philosophies of government may exist side-by-side, is reflected in the Electoral College and the equality of the states in the Senate.

America was supposed to be a competitive political system. As James Madison summarized it, “Ambition must be made to check ambition.”

We expect people to seek power and be selfish with it, so we limit that power not by relying just on the law, or on good moral character, but on their own territorial political nature.

That applies not only to the states but to the branches of government.

Consider, for example, that the Vice Presidency, now called “the spare tire of government” or “not worth a bucket of warm spit” is actually supposed to be occupied by the candidate who comes in second place.

This means that the loser to the President, his rival, would again become his rival in the Senate and not simply a decoration or a tool for the president.

But again, people like to concentrate power, so this prescription – much like prescriptions for the election of senators by state legislatures – was quickly ignored.

So how did the government get so big? The best answer I can give is that we ignored the rules or changed the rules. And we didn’t use Article 5 in the Constitution to do it.

So if you don’t want to get taken advantage of, read the Constitution and pay attention to the wisdom of those who wrote it – and to the wisdom that informed them.

Just like in a game of Monopoly, you might help our republic get out of jail.

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