Tag Archives: Classical liberalism

The Constitution Failed, by Ryan McMaken

The main function of the Constitution was to limit the power of the federal government, and in that it has failed. From Ryan McMaken at mises.org:

Contrary to a certain nostalgic nationalist myth that still endures, the US Constitution as first conceived was never intended to limit government power. The primary purpose of the Convention of 1787 was to increase federal power, as the older constitution of 1776 (i.e., the Articles of Confederation) was regarded by centralizers as being too “weak.” The older constitution was built on a consensus model, and required acquiescence from a supermajority of member states to do much. The overwhelming preponderance of government power lay with the states themselves, which were in their own right too weak to demand much from their citizens.

Nonetheless, this loose union of states had functioned well enough. The states, working in voluntary union, had fought off the most powerful empire of the eighteenth century during the Revolution. The Massachusetts state militia had put down Shay’s Rebellion without any federal help. Americans, for the most part, were more free and better fed than the populations of Europe, the wealthiest region of the world. Thanks to the liberal ideology spread by the Revolution, slavery was in decline nationwide. Indentured servitude was on the way out. The restrictive feudalism of old was disappearing.

Yet, the wealthy elite, like Hamilton, Washington, and Madison (in his counterrevolutionary phase), wanted something else. They wanted a federal system that could force payment of federal taxes. They wanted a bigger navy. They wanted a federal army that could march into the interior and threaten farmers with destruction, as Washington did during the Whiskey Rebellion. In short, they wanted a Constitution that would centralize power, and grow it.

It was the opponents of these “Federalists” who demanded the only part of the constitution that ever actually limited power. The Anti-Federalists demanded amendments that would protect local communities from federal power. They eventually got their bill of rights, but of course the federal government has always sought to interpret the bill’s amendments in a way that expands federal power. Or, the federal government just ignores it altogether.

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The Rise, Fall, and Renaissance of Classical Liberalism, by Ralph Raico

This article was written in 1992 and the tone is probably more hopeful than if it were written now. From Ralph Raico at lewrockwell.com:

[This article appeared in the Future of Freedom Foundation’s Freedom Daily, August 1992]

Classical liberalism—or simply liberalism, as it was called until around the turn of the century—is the signature political philosophy of Western civilization. Hints and suggestions of the liberal idea can be found in other great cultures. But it was the distinctive society produced in Europe—and in the outposts of Europe, and above all America—that served as the seedbed of liberalism. In turn, that society was decisively shaped by the liberal movement.

Decentralization and the division of power have been the hallmarks of the history of Europe. After the fall of Rome, no empire was ever able to dominate the continent. Instead, Europe became a complex mosaic of competing nations, principalities, and city-states. The various rulers found themselves in competition with each other. If one of them indulged in predatory taxation or arbitrary confiscations of property, he might well lose his most productive citizens, who could “exit,” together with their capital. The kings also found powerful rivals in ambitious barons and in religious authorities that were backed by an international Church. Parliaments emerged that limited the taxing power of kings, and free cities arose with special charters that put the merchant elite in charge.

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