Our Constitutional Republic

September 17 is Constitution Day, which celebrates the document that the American Founders designed to create a government with limited and enumerated powers. They did not design a democratic government, if democratic government is viewed as a government that carries out the will of its citizens.

In the twenty-first century, it is far too common a view that the government should carry out the will of its citizens, as determined through democratic political institutions. Elected officials make similar claims themselves, justifying policies they favor by saying they have a mandate from the voters.

The Constitution gives the federal government limited and enumerated powers, and the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, a part of the original Bill of Rights, states in its entirety, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states, respectively, or to the people.”

The Constitution created a government that was designed to protect the rights of its citizens–to protect their liberty–and the American Founders viewed government to be the greatest threat to their liberty. Read the Declaration of Independence, which consists of a list of grievances against the King of England–a list of many ways he violated the rights of the colonists–and concludes by saying they have the right to establish their own government to protect their liberty.

It is especially appropriate on Constitution Day to remember that our nation’s government was not designed to be a democracy, if by democracy we mean a government that does what its citizens prefer. Democracy, in that sense, opens up the opportunity for government to abuse its power, because it legitimizes anything the government does as being a product of a democratic decision-making process, and therefore the will of its citizens.

These days, when it seems almost anti-American to be critical of democracy, a day to celebrate the Constitution also provides a reminder that the Founders went out of their way to design a government of limited and enumerated powers, deliberately insulated from democratic pressures.

I discuss this in more detail in Chapter 4 of my new Independent Institute book, Liberty in Peril. If we want to protect our rights, we would do well to remember why the American Founders designed our constitutionally limited government as they did.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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