No, I’m not speaking of 1994.Â I mean to speak more abstractly for a moment.Â I left a comment over at Kevin’s that I thought would be worth turning into a post, and maybe getting some discussion going over here as well.
Someone opined that “I am absolutely in support of -a- constitution that places explicit limits on government and I demand that the government respect those limits.” which is a statement I would agree with.Â But what happens when the people don’t demand that?Â What happens when the people keep electing representatives that weaken those limits? What if we can’t even agree on what those limits are?
I agree you need a written constitution that limits government, but people need to agree with the philosophical underpinnings of the document. No limits will long stand if the people don’t think those limits are important.Â How, over the long run, you can sustain written limits on government in the face of a people opposed or indifferent to the limits without somehow limiting their suffrage, so that the wrong people don’t get the vote.Â If you did this, I don’t know whether it would be moral.
We are a constitutional republic, rather than a democracy, but all that means is it takes a longer, takes more consensus, and takes more work to fundamentally alter the structure of the government. Can you see folks arguing today about whether Congress can establish a national bank? Over whether the federal government can purchase land? Our founders squabbled about this incessantly, but most people in modern times would agree that The Constitution permits the government to exercise power in this manner.Â The Federalists won on these points.Â Is that legitimate?
Popular Sovereignty as a source of government legitimacy presents a serious challenge for attempts to limit government absolutely. Some thinkers have, for this reason, rejected popular sovereignty as a source of legitimacy. You can make those kinds of academic arguments, but at the end of the day, I think they are just that. At some point you have to come to terms with the fact that the people are ultimately in the drivers seat over the long term no matter how clever a system of checks and balances you devise.
That isn’t say we should just acquiesce to this dangerous notion of a “Living Constitution”. In principle I believe in originalism, and I think we need to make the intellectual case for it. The task before us is to continue the same squabbling over the meaning of The Constitution that’s been happening over the past 232 years of this nation’s history.Â If we want a limited government of enumerated powers, we have to argue why that’s important, and convince people. There is any way around this in a republican society.
If you believe in Popular Sovereignty, I don’t think there can be any right of revolution that’s not supported (or acquiesced to) at least a majority of the people provided you have a functioning, elected government. If you have an elected government, the majority can always change it through the ballot box. So where does that leave revolution?Â Certainly not with any concept of an organic revolution of the whole of The People.Â Where you do not have the support of the people, can you justify a violent revolution?Â At what point does a revolution just become a civil war?Â What do you do when two peoples have such irreconcilable differences that they can no longer live peacefully among one another?
Peoples can part ways, and have many times throughout history, either through peaceful means (India) or through violent means (USA).Â Before that can happen, however, you need to create a “people” that share some kind of geographical area and culture you could speak of as a new nation. Outside of that, I don’t think revolution has much of a role to play in a situation where republican institutions are still functioning.