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Sunday, December 2, 2012

A (very) short course in American history, government and economics

What Every American Citizen Needs to Know

Oil on canvas portrait of Alexander Hamilton b...
Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Related source » On Democracy Versus Liberty | Steve H. Hanke | Cato Institute: Commentary: 'via Blog this'
[This related source is recommended in its entirety.] h/t Malcolm Pollack

“ […] Most people, including most Americans, would be surprised to learn that the word "democracy" does not appear in the Declaration of Independence (1776) or the Constitution of the United States of America (1789). They would also be shocked to learn the reason for the absence of the word democracy in the founding documents of the U.S.A. Contrary to what propaganda has led the public to believe, America's Founding Fathers were skeptical and anxious about democracy. They were aware of the evils that accompany a tyranny of the majority. The Framers of the Constitution went to great lengths to ensure that the federal government was not based on the will of the majority and was not, therefore, democratic. The Constitution divided the federal government into legislative, executive and judicial branches. Each branch was designed to check the power of the other branches. The Founders did not want to rely only on the voters to check government power. As a result, citizens were given very little power to select federal officials. Neither the President, members of the judiciary nor the Senate were elected by direct popular vote. Only the members of the House of Representatives were directly elected by popular vote. Even in this case, the franchise was quite restricted. If the Framers of the Constitution did not embrace democracy, what did they adhere to? To a man, the Framers agreed that the purpose of government was to secure citizens in John Locke's trilogy of the rights to life, liberty and property. The Framers wrote extensively and eloquently. On property, for example, John Adams wrote that "the moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence." […] The Constitution was designed to further the cause of liberty, not democracy. To do that, the Constitution protected individuals' rights from the government, as well as from their fellow citizens. To that end, the Constitution laid down clear, unequivocal and enforceable rules to protect individuals' rights. In consequence, the government's scope and scale were strictly limited. Economic liberty, which is a precondition for growth and prosperity, was enshrined in the Constitution. After European settlement, America consisted of thirteen English colonies. They benefited from a rather light administration from London and salutary neglect. This contrasted with the French colonies, which were controlled from Paris, and the Spanish colonies, which had entire institutional superstructures imposed from Spain. […] As a reaction to the overall political-economic situation, the Constitutional Convention convened in 1787 in Philadelphia. In due course, the Constitution was crafted and ratified in 1789. It is a short, clear, intelligible document. The Constitution's preamble contains only 52 words which are followed by seven short articles and ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights (1791). The original Constitution established the rule of law and limited government. It is noteworthy that about 20 percent of the Constitution itemizes things that the federal and state governments may not do, while only 10 percent of the Constitution is concerned with positive grants of power. In total, the legitimate powers granted by the Constitution were less than those that had existed. The bulk of the Constitution — about 70 percent — addresses the Framers' conception of their main task: to bring the United States and its government under the rule of law. The Constitution is primarily a structural and procedural document that itemizes who is to exercise power and how they are to exercise it. A great deal of stress is placed on the separation of powers and the checks and balances in the system. These were not a Cartesian construct or formula aimed at social engineering, but a shield to protect the people from the government. In short, the Constitution was designed to govern the government, not the people. The Bill of Rights establishes the rights of the people against infringements by the State. The only thing that the citizens can demand from the State, under the Bill of Rights, is for a trial by a jury. The rest of the citizens' rights are protections from the State. For roughly a century after the Constitution was ratified, private property, contracts and free internal trade within the United States were sacred. The scope and scale of the government remained very constrained. All this was very consistent with what was understood to be liberty. […] At the time, Americans were literate and well informed, via pamphlets and manuscripts, about the political debates of the day. […] The Federalist Papers were published in 1787 and 1788 in New York City's Independent Journal, an ordinary newspaper. These important essays — written under pseudonyms by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay — were of very high quality and set the stage for the Constitutional Convention and the resulting product. In passing, it is worth mentioning that Hamilton organized this project, wrote most of the essays, and of all the Founding Fathers, performed most of the intellectual work for the least historical credit. That said, two notable economists have given Hamilton his due. Lionel Robbins thought the Federalist Papers were "the best book on political science and its broad practical aspects written in the last thousand years." And if that were not enough, Milton Friedman wrote in 1973 that Federalist Paper 15, written by Hamilton, "contains a more cogent analysis of the European Common Market than any I have seen from the pen of a modern writer." […] In addition to the major disruption caused by the Civil War, it is worth mentioning one major anomaly in the U.S. economy: lands owned by the federal, as well as state and local, governments. […] The conflagration of World War I marks a violent break with the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Property rights were suspended on a large scale. There were wide-scale nationalizations of rail, telephone, telegraph and to a lesser degree ocean shipping. Over 100 manufacturing plants were nationalized. The government got involved in labor-management relations under the Adams Act in 1916. Conscription was instituted. The Espionage Act was passed in 1917. The Sedition Act of 1918 imposed penalties for anti-government expression, subverting the Bill of Rights. The novelist, Upton Sinclair was actually arrested for reading the Bill of Rights and Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union, was arrested for reading the Constitution. President Woodrow Wilson accomplished all this under emergency powers granted to him by Congress in 1916. Much of this anti-Constitutional apparatus was scrapped after World War I. However, residues remained and eventually resurfaced. All it took were other national emergencies — the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, and so on. With each, laws were enacted, bureaus created and the budgets enlarged. In many cases, these changes turned out to be permanent. The result is that crises acted as a ratchet, shifting the trend line of government size and scope up to a higher level. […] What lessons can we learn? First, "democracy" and "freedom" are not interchangeable words. Second, only the first century of the American experience represents a standard for freedom. Expanding democracy is a slogan which requires great caution. It can easily result in elected tyranny. Freedom is the concept. Our challenge is to persuade every citizen that benefits flow from freedom's practical applications. Freedom might then flourish in very diverse and unexpected forms in different parts of the world.” [emphasis added]
— Steve H. Hanke, February 2011 issue of Globe Asia (

It is a hackneyed imperative, but Hanke's essay is a must-read! I really mean it.

Given the virtual illiteracy of our electorate (indeed, the general population) with regard to what was once taught as "social studies" in public high schools across America, this comprehensive and erudite essay qualifies as an all-purpose short-course on the essential topics that every American should, nay must, be familiar with, if not expert in.

Otherwise, we are doomed to become a nation of fat and lazy Obama-phone sponges.
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